Researchers in Slovenia have detailed a case of food fraud that posed risks to public health.

The incident involved the illegal use of sulfites in meat preparations and ground (minced) meat in Slovenia in 2019. It was judged to be an intentional act for economic gain.

The case began with a consumer’s notification of an allergic-like reaction after consuming a meat product. While authorities reacted by intensifying controls on markets and retailers, the risk management and risk communication analysis showed shortcomings, including a slow response time, a lack of recall of sulfite-treated meat products, and an in-depth risk assessment. 

Sulfites were illegally added to food to preserve the appealing red color of meat, giving it the appearance of fresh meat. According to a study published in the International Journal of Sanitary Engineering Research, companies intentionally omitted sulfites from product labeling, posing a risk to people with such intolerances.

Timeline of incident
Sulfites naturally occur in some foods but are used as food additives to prevent microbial spoilage and preserve color. Some sensitive people have reactions such as wheezing, a tight chest, and cough.

The alert started with a consumer’s telephone notification to the Administration for Food Safety, Veterinary Sector, and Plant Protection in December 2017 regarding health problems related to consuming a meal prepared from ground meat. However, this received no response.

A written complaint to the authority was sent in March 2018 concerning the previous phone conversation and the health problems after eating ground meat. At that time, the agency had not received any related complaints or information about ill health.

In April 2018, food inspectors conducted official inspections at retail butcher shops in Ljubljana, where the use of the additive in meat preparations was not established. They did not take samples of meat preparations, and findings were recorded on an official note. Despite his request for information about the complaint, the consumer was not provided feedback.

In May 2019, the authority received a phone call indicating the additive’s use in meat products sold in a national retail chain. Based on this report, an inspector visited this supermarket in June and examined two samples: a meat preparation and ground meat, both of which were positive for sulfites. The inspector did not issue any further orders or inform the food agency’s director.

Findings of sulfites in meat
In June 2019, official checks were also performed at a supermarket in Ljubljana from another retail chain. The person responsible for the supermarket’s meat sales admitted to using sulfites. However, the inspector only made a written note about it, and no sampling was performed. The business destroyed meat preparations on display. The inspector did not order corrective measures or penalties, and the company was not asked to recall meat products.

In August 2019, inspectors began monitoring the presence of sulfites in meat preparations, fresh meat, and fish to evaluate the possible more comprehensive incidence of the practice. Of five samples, one meat preparation test was positive. Based on this result, oral and written decisions were issued, and an offense procedure was initiated; however, a recall was not requested. The inspector also found sulfites in a butcher’s shop, and the retailer admitted using the additive. Two other positive samples of meat preparations were found during the control of a hypermarket in the Savinjska region.

In September 2019, an official veterinarian carried out an inspection. A member of staff at a food company said the use of sulfites had been common practice for a long time. The inspector issued an oral, written, and final decision but did not request a recall.

The relevant Minister only received information regarding sulfites in meat preparations in October 2019, despite authorities receiving a report on the first two positives in June.

Risk management measures dealt with identified cases, but there was insufficient awareness of the health risks associated with the illicit use of sulfites in meat products. Researchers said this may explain why tracing and recall actions were not triggered and why a more systematic investigation of the use of sulfites was not launched.

“There is no such thing as zero risk in food safety, despite the efforts of governments and inspection bodies to prevent food fraud. Nevertheless, all evidence should be collected, and efforts should be made to reduce the risks. Ineffective, improper risk management in this case reflects a lack of effective training for inspectors and internal risk communication,” they added.

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