EU assesses dairy product safety in Romania and Finland

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Two audits recently published by the European Commission’s health and safety agency assessed the safety of milk and dairy products in Romania and Finland. Several issues were found.

DG Health’s first remote audit, in December 2020 in Romania, revealed that the official control system was comprehensive, but there were some issues with lab testing and enforcement.

Dairy sites are registered according to their commercial activities: most “non-professional” farms are not subject to official controls because they are not considered to participate in the national trade in dairy products. However, they supply raw milk to licensed processing plants.

The network of official accredited laboratories has not been evaluated by the central authority due to other priorities or a lack of budget. In 2020, nine inspections were planned but only one was carried out due to a lack of financial resources. Another was done in a lab, following a customer complaint. In private laboratories, none of the 15 planned inspections were carried out, but five unplanned checks were carried out after complaints from customers.

According to the report, problems with the methods used, the results obtained, the low participation rate and the results of interlaboratory proficiency tests by the internal laboratories of private and food companies mean that the results may not be reliable and do not guarantee that the milk is safe for consumption. .

Test results at the county’s veterinary health and food safety labs showed a significant number of non-compliant somatic cell and plate count samples; while very few or no unsatisfactory results were obtained from private and in-house laboratories, which had tested more samples.

Re-labeling confusion
Checks on raw milk criteria in sheep, goat and buffalo farms are limited because priority has been given to the cow’s milk sector. The sampling frequency was sometimes lower than that required by EU legislation. The Romanian authorities have since issued instructions to verify the raw milk criteria of all the species concerned.

At the time of the audit, 158 dairy processing establishments were registered and 25 suspended. Evidence provided to the audit team showed that enforcement actions do not always match the severity of a non-compliance or are not increased after repeated issues. In some cases, the food industry had not properly corrected deficiencies.

National laws relating to the use of raw cow’s milk that does not comply with plate counting criteria, the direct sale of foodstuffs and the manufacture of traditional products have not been notified to the European Commission and Member States , contrary to the rules. Romanian authorities have pledged to do so by March 2022 and get rid of a rectangular identification mark used on some dairy products.

Checks in 2020 on fraud focused on the labeling of dairy products at the retail level. One county detected six non-compliances in 36 checks. The main problem was cheese made with sheep’s and cow’s milk sold as cheese made only with sheep’s milk. Further investigations revealed that the products were correctly labeled by the manufacturer, but were later relabeled by the retailer, misleading consumers.

Results from Finland
The second virtual audit, in April 2021 in Finland, praised the quality of raw milk and the laboratory network, but identified a number of weaknesses in the control system.

Several regional and local officials said they lacked the resources to carry out dairy hygiene checks and often had to prioritize checks on other topics such as animal welfare. A lack of training was also noted by the audit team.

A change in IT systems has resulted in restricted access and information gaps between local, regional and central agencies as well as problems transferring information from old databases.

The auditors found that central and regional authorities have no power to influence dairy hygiene checks, which are carried out by local authorities and do not have access to local sampling plans and therefore cannot monitor the Implementation. The central authority also exercises only limited control to verify the effectiveness, consistency and uniformity of official controls, which is required by EU law.

Too forgiving?
Dairy cooperatives responsible for collecting and transporting raw milk are not included in official controls and the level of cooperation with authorities varies. The audit team reviewed a dairy operation report from a milk collection cooperative that had several milking hygiene deficiencies.

Dairy establishment checks use smileys for the different subjects to be checked. The system aims for an average of 85% of food businesses to be in the A category for excellent and B for good and this target has been achieved over the past three years.

However, a review by the audit team of several inspection reports suggests that the notes are often too lenient and inspectors are reluctant to take enforcement action. This means that the results do not accurately reflect the nature or severity of the nonconformities detected.

In one example, a company detected Listeria monocytogenes twice in drain samples, including one in a production area in October 2020. It did not sample the dairy product produced after the last positive test. Despite this, and asking the firm to provide an action plan with a two-week deadline, the own Listeria checks were rated as excellent. The next two inspection reports did not mention whether the plan had been provided.

Authorities said avoiding mandatory re-inspections for C and D scores due to understaffing, prioritization of other tasks, lack of experience in carrying out checks and training were the main reasons for leniency.

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