Salmonella in breaded chicken and ethylene oxide were two of the main incidents handled by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) last year.
The FSA was notified of 2,336 food and feed safety incidents in England, Northern Ireland and Wales in 2021/22. This is an 18% increase from 1,978 alerts in 2020/21, but is similar to data from pre-COVID-19 pandemic years.
The top four types of hazards in 2021/22 were pathogenic microorganisms, allergens, poor and insufficient controls, and pesticide residues. Meat and meat products cause the most incidents, followed by poultry meat and dietary foods and dietary supplements.
Pathogen-related incidents account for a quarter of the total, up from previous years. The increase is thought to be linked to heightened surveillance following a series of outbreaks of Salmonella in breaded chicken products from Poland in 2020 and 2021, which sickened more than 1,000 people over several years with many products and brands affected.
Ingredient cross-contamination, cleanliness or sanitation, and ingredient hygiene controls were the top root causes of pathogenic incidents. Salmonella dominated while Listeria declined slightly.
One event involved metal and plastic contamination of powdered soft drinks from the United States. The affected products were available via online marketplaces for purchase by UK consumers.
Ethylene oxide incident
According to the report, the doubling of pesticide notifications was due to a large-scale problem in the EU and UK related to the presence of unauthorized ethylene oxide in food. Thousands of products have been recalled or withdrawn in the UK and Europe.
The problem started in September 2020 in sesame seeds from India and is still ongoing, spreading to locust bean gum and dietary supplement ingredients. The UK handled the incident through product recalls rather than the European approach to published recalls.
There were 129 incidents related to ethylene oxide in the UK from April 2021 to March 2022. The main products affected were health foods, food supplements and fortified foods, food additives and flavourings, herbs and spices, ice cream and desserts, and other products including noodles.
The challenges of a different approach between the UK and the EU have been facilitated by regular meetings with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and Food Standards Scotland.
There has been an increase in poor and insufficient controls. This was part of an inter-agency response to manage the possible impacts on food safety of the various border controls since leaving the EU for imports passing through the EU and avoiding sanitary and phytosanitary checks on entry United Kingdom.
Incident detection and response
For allergen-related incidents, root cause analysis data showed that label verification checks were the largest contributor, followed by labeling declaration and procedures not followed.
A system created to help mitigate EU data loss has identified several emerging issues that require further investigation to determine risks in the UK. These included Listeria in enoki mushrooms and Salmonella in halva and tahini products from Syria, leading to product withdrawals from the market.
A case study on foster mice shows how the FSA worked with Lithuanian authorities and the European Commission to manage a severe Salmonella outbreak affecting more than 1,000 people over several years, with a significant impact on children. A ban has been imposed on foster rodents from Lithuania to prevent future cases.
A report, due for release later this year, found that consumer awareness of the recalls and understanding of what action to take remained low. There was also little evidence of sharing lessons learned from incidents across industry and regulators to improve standards.
Two forums, the Food Industry Liaison Group (FILG) and the Importers Working Group (IMPWG), include industry trade associations that meet monthly to discuss food safety issues. They have been instrumental in dealing with the issues of ethylene oxide and Salmonella foster mice.
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