Completely combating recalls and contaminations might seem like a hopeless task, but much can definitely still be gained in the field of risk limitation. “It’s not enough to just meet the mandatory guidelines. Continuing to observe the regulations regarding technical aspects of management (HACCP) is actually even more important,” says Harm Janssens, manager of TLR International Laboratories.
According to Harm, it’s not so much negligence that has caused the number of food infections to increase in recent years, it’s because more studies are being conducted. “Although the recalls and contaminations of recent years are the cause for these studies,” Harm mentions. “As a result of the outbreaks of EHEC, Salmonella, E.coli and Listeria, among other diseases, the research of pathogens has become very important. Besides, methodologies and techniques are nowadays much better and more reliable, and analyses will have positive results more often because protocols have become stricter.”
Whether the climate and production circumstances in the country of origin are of influence on the extent of the risk can’t simply be answered by ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ according to Harm, although he says it definitely plays a part. Irrigation might be needed when the country is affected by warm and dry weather. “The irrigation water is a considerable danger, and therefore always has to be inspected before use. The manner of production can also be of influence. With open productions, there are all kinds of outside circumstances depending on pesticides. In greenhouses, these circumstances don’t become less influential, but greenhouses can be a hotbed of bacteria. Covered production is somewhat in the middle. Each production has its own dangers. We support companies in working according to quality schemes, such as QS, GlobalGAP, IFS and BRC.”
Bad hand hygiene and contaminated cleaning water
TLR is one of the six laboratories of which the NVWA (the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority) accepts the results of the inspections. The independent laboratory is specialised in the analysis of food such as fruit and vegetables. Besides the quick contamination analyses such as residue inspections, it can also quickly monitor the microbiological quality and safety. “Food safety and hygiene are closely connected. Bad hand hygiene and contaminated cleaning water are often occurring causes of microbiological contaminations of fruit and vegetables. The enteropathogenic E.coli also occurs on fruit and vegetable products. We’re accredited to find this,” Harm says. “Viruses can survive in a waxy layer on some varieties of fruit, and the bacteria don’t die from cooling or freezing either. When these products are analysed, TLR can confirm the presence of the noro virus, hepatitis A, and clostridium botulinum, for instance. TLR is one of the few laboratories that can conduct these analyses with accreditation in Europe.”
A large part of these inspections is done by companies active in the processing industry. Their products come into contact with machinery, processing water, cleaning product, and last but not least, human hands. Harm: “The more acts, the larger the risk of contamination. Carefully cleaning products is crucial. However, time should be taken to clean the products of any pathogens, chemical substances, allergens and the like. GlobalGAP has a fairly good guideline about where the risks can be found and how to anticipate this, but it’s not a guarantee. Moreover, differences in standards can be possible between countries. Companies will always have to be on guard for the potential dangers within their own halls.”
Origin analysis offers opportunities to fresh produce
According to Harm, the analyses are always changing, which makes sense considering the diversity in outbreaks. “In the past, they mostly looked for Salmonella. EHEC, for example, was never searched for before the German outbreak in Hamburg, and the same is true for Fipronil in eggs and Listeria in fruit and vegetables. A similar ‘undiscovered’ contamination could happen again in theory, and we’re not even talking about fraud now. Because of the many researches and inspections, the risk is being kept as small as possible, but it’s practically impossible to prevent outbreaks completely.”
He says developments within the lab went quickly in the past few years. “New organisms are still discovered every day, but much is still undiscovered, after all,” he continues. “Besides, the detection techniques have changed considerably and became more accurate. The quick analyses for pathogens in particular are on the rise. The origin analyses can be conducted increasingly faster as well. Once the patterns of rare soil are known, it becomes easy to compare batches to each other. Origin analysis isn’t used a lot yet in fresh produce, but it definitely offers good opportunities.”
Harm would like to tell companies that wish to decrease the risk of contamination as much as possible to remain critical regarding management and to regularly assess the critical aspects.
TLR International Laboratories