Italian authorities are investigating a case of fish fraud that led to several people suffering from histamine poisoning.

Carabinieri NAS Bari was part of a team that carried out court orders involving 18 people earlier this month. Five people were detained and six were placed under house arrest.

Measures were taken against people involved in the fish sector in the town of Bisceglie, in the province of Barletta-Andria-Trani; from a food safety consultancy company and a private laboratory in Avellino, responsible for analyzing fish products.

Investigations, coordinated by the public prosecutor’s office in Trani and launched in June 2021, followed food poisoning suffered by dozens of people, in various parts of the country, some of whom were hospitalized, after eating yellowfin tuna.

Officials believe products were defrosted and adulterated with substances such as nitrites and nitrates, to enhance their appearance and color before being placed on the market. However, such treatment and processes made items harmful to the health of consumers.

Suspects allegedly concealed unfavorable results of tests conducted on fish products and falsified certificates drawn up by other accredited labs, so as to not reveal the presence of nitrites and nitrates and to lower the values of ascorbates to mislead official agencies.

They are also accused of selling frozen salmon as fresh and expired fish products.

Broader issue
Reports of histamine or high ascorbic acid levels in tuna have been reported a dozen times in notifications on the EU Commission’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) portal so far this year. Alerts include eight people sick in Italy in July and 46 cases in Spain in May.

In late 2022, the European Commission put maximum levels on three additives in tuna to tackle food fraud. Limits apply to the use of ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbate and calcium ascorbate as antioxidants in tuna. 

The most common symptoms of histamine, also known as scombroid fish poisoning, are a tingling or burning sensation in the mouth, facial swelling, rash, hives and itchy skin, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. They usually resolve within several hours without medical intervention. The onset of symptoms can range from minutes to several hours following ingestion of the toxin. Typically, the average incubation period before illness is one hour.

Production of histamine is related to mishandling of food because of storage at incorrect temperatures. Once produced, histamine cannot be eliminated by normal cooking or freezing temperatures.

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