The number of hygiene and safety complaints received by the Irish food agency in 2023 was higher than previous years, according to statistics recently released.

A total of 7,732 complaints and queries were handled by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s (FSAI) Advice Line in 2023.

There were 4,395 complaints from consumers, with more than 1,400 relating to poor hygiene standards, almost 1,200 to unfit food and 1,175 to suspected food poisoning. Overall, complaints rose 8.3 percent in 2023 compared with 4,058 in 2022, which continued an upwards trend over the past decade.

Poor hygiene standards included complaints about staff not having hair covered during food preparation; toilets being dirty; staff handling food and cash with the same gloves; food unprotected from contamination; dirty fridges; food not being stored correctly; visibly dirty premises; and rodents spotted.

Unfit food means food that is not safe to eat due to issues such as foreign body contamination. Commonly reported objects in food were plastic; hair; insects; glass; stones and wood.

Examples include an insect found in instant noodles; a snail in coleslaw; a dead mouse in strawberries; a piece of bone in a chocolate bar; worms in frozen dumplings; a piece of plastic inside a pepper; part of a latex glove in a bag of spinach; glass in a loaf of bread; metal shavings in takeaway noodles; and a metal pin in a prepacked salad. Other complaints covered meats not cooked completely; food that smelled or tasted off; items sold past their use-by date; and mold.

Importance of public reports
For reports of suspected food poisoning, chicken; beef; fish; and shellfish were the main foods mentioned. Complaints were also made because of labeling issues, allergen information and unregistered food businesses.

Dr. Pamela Byrne, FSAI chief executive, said it was important for the public to make complaints, so that any food safety issues can be addressed.

“It is crucial for food establishments to maintain high standards of food safety practices, and reports made by the public greatly assist environmental health officers, veterinary and agricultural inspectors, sea-fisheries inspection officers, and laboratory staff in their work,” she said.

“While routine inspections are carried out regularly, reports from the public help to identify specific issues, ensuring swift identification of potential threats to public health. The increase in complaints reflects a growing awareness among the public of their right to safe food and the importance of high standards of food safety and hygiene.”

The FSAI’s Advice Line also offers advice and information and there were 3,337 queries in 2023 from people working in the food industry; food safety consultants; researchers; consumers; and others. Popular topics included how to start a food business; requests for FSAI publications; food labeling information; best practice in food businesses; food safety training; and import/export information.

Belgian complaint data
In Belgium, the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) consumer contact point received 4,865 complaints in 2023. This is similar to the 4,998 reports in the previous year.

Hygiene and the risk of food poisoning are the main reasons given for calls. FASFC said the number of reports demonstrated growing public awareness about food safety. The agency considers the complaints to be important signals regarding possible food safety problems on the ground.

About a third of complaints fell into the hygiene category. These are from consumers who doubt the general cleanliness of an establishment, the hygiene of staff or suspect the presence of pests.

The second largest category concerns people who have fallen ill and believe it was caused by eating a particular item. This type of complaint saw a slight peak in August 2023, probably because of the high temperatures, which is a factor in cases of food poisoning.

More than 90 percent of complaints were handled by FASFC within 30 days. In more than half of the checks carried out following a consumer complaint, issues raised were found to be justified. In a few of these controls, shortcomings other than those mentioned in the complaint were noted.

FASFC, also known as AFSCA and FAVV, said complaints are processed anonymously and anonymity is respected by inspectors.

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