Voluntary approaches to tackle certain mycotoxins in dried figs and pistachios in Turkiye don’t seem to be working, according to the European Commission’s health and safety agency.

A remote DG Sante audit, in May and June 2022, included authorities, laboratories, producers, and exporters.

The assessment followed regular Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) notifications in recent years for aflatoxins in pistachios and dried figs imported from Türkiye. In 2021, there were 53 reports of aflatoxin in dried figs and 27 for pistachios. There are no EU limits for ochratoxin A in dried figs but five RASFF alerts were issued in 2021.

Follow-up of RASFF notifications for figs can often find the cause and details corrective actions but in pistachios, it is less well carried out and documented. Turkish officials said a focus has been put on pistachios to ensure that investigation reports contain detailed information. Training will also be given to producers subject to a RASFF notification.

EU rules state that each consignment of dried fıgs and pistachios originating in or via Türkiye must have a health certificate issued by authorities of the exporting country and results of official sampling showing compliance with requirements on maximum levels of aflatoxins. Figs are also subject to a 20 percent frequency of physical and identity checks at the border by EU countries while it is 50 percent for pistachios.

Indication problems are getting worse
Auditors found there are signs that a low trend in rejection rates in pre-export testing is increasing year-on-year. They said this suggests the promotion of preventive measures to be implemented on a voluntary basis has not given the desired results.

It calls into question the ability of Türkiye’s control system to ensure that all exported dried fig and pistachio consignments have been produced in line with EU regulations. Export sampling and testing is done well, but the system has not been able to reduce the number of RASFF notifications.

In 2021, 7,670 samples of dried figs were compliant with aflatoxins and 87 were not, in pre-export testing. Until the end of May 2022, 2,088 samples were compliant and 33 were not. For pistachios, in 2021, 1,919 samples were compliant with 28 non-compliances, and in 2022, 712 samples were compliant while 14 were not. 

Efforts to mitigate the problem included staff training, guidance documents, and standards to promote the prevention of aflatoxin contamination in primary production and processing.

Food establishments are visited at a frequency set by a risk assessment and at least once a year for those exporting to Europe. The audit team reviewed risk analysis procedures, which were considered equivalent to what is required in the EU.

Unclear if farmers are following advice
Auditors found official controls are not designed to verify and monitor if and to what extent farmers implement measures for mycotoxin control. Reporting on official controls, including the effectiveness of HACCP plans and related checks by processors, is also poor.

Official controls on farms are generally training or advice visits, with the main purpose of promoting good practices. Measures cover drying tunnels with covered floors, plastic drying crates, and harvesting nets for figs. For pistachios, steps include careful harvesting and using nets and ladders, to prevent nuts from coming into contact with soil. However, auditors said in the absence of subsidies, which are given only to a limited extent, it is doubtful how many farmers will take up such measures.

DG Sante found no problems with labs doing analyses for the official control on aflatoxin and ochratoxin A contamination in dried figs and pistachios for export to the EU.

Turkish authorities said all 200 pistachio producers operating in Gaziantep and Şanlıurfa provinces and the 60 fig producers in Aydın, İzmir, and Bursa provinces will be involved in training that will cover risk analysis on the general principles of GAP, integrated control, plant nutrition, pre-harvest, harvest, and post-harvest hygiene.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)