With the rising number of recalls and contaminations, food safety is becoming an ever more important theme. Companies choose to do tests early in the process more and more often, to limit risks. “You can intervene much earlier, and this trend is now also breaking through in the food sector,” says Leo van Harten of Mérieux NutriSciences.
More pathogens have been found on fruit and vegetables recently. “This trend is clearly visible,” says Leo. This year, Salmonella was found 20 per cent more often than in 2017. For research into E.coli and EHEC, the increase is by 30 per cent. “This is partly because more research into pathogens is being done,” Leo explains the figures. Research into EHEC and E.coli wasn’t common a few years ago. Since the EHEC crisis of 2011 and the scandals in the meat and fish sector, the topic has been on the agenda. The research into listeria is quite recent as well, due to European legislation for RTE products. “It’s a flywheel effect. Because more attention is paid to it, there’s more research, and more is therefore found,” Leo explains.
The inspections are mostly conducted in the secondary sector. It’s not surprising these companies are the ones where the contaminations are found. “There’s always a potential danger when working with food,” he continues. “That’s when the product is opened up, and it comes into contact with water, machinery or human hands. That’s where the risks can be found.”
To prevent contaminations, Mérieux NutriSciences developed an environment monitoring programme. This approach is better known in the US, which coincides with the size of companies. “There’s a large risk factor, and you can deal with it in a more focused manner,” Leo explains. This means inspections are done earlier in the production process. “You don’t want to inspect the final products, because that’s too late. You can intervene much earlier, and that trend can now also be seen breaking through in the food sector.”
This is expressed in, for example, more environmental analyses, such as sampling of surfaces, process water and goals for cleaning and disinfecting/hygiene, to prevent contaminations. “You have to draw up a plan, but you need specific experts for that who are familiar with the characteristics of micro-organisms.” This is summed up in a monitoring plan. “Companies have to map the risks per product and per location, because each product and each location is different.”
Rise of the rapid test
Microbiology is a relatively young science. In the past roughly 30 years, developments in labs came quickly. “Much is still unknown. We’re still discovering new organisms, how they develop and how those contaminations spread,” Leo says. The laboratory research is conducted according to ISO standards, so that results are thorough, although it also takes time. “For allergens in particular we’ve seen that a lot of methods were developed to set up rapid tests. We also see this reflected in the emerging pathogens.” For companies, the speed of these tests is a benefit, but the quality of the inspection is debatable. “The results can be used by the companies as an indication, but the tests don’t have official value.”
Within Europe, the standards vary between the different countries. “The problems between countries can differ, because research is done differently or less thoroughly,” Leo explains. On a European level, regulations aren’t as advanced as the developments within countries. “A country is the first to respond to an incident, but it takes much longer on a European level, and coordination with the other member countries must also take place,” he continues. Besides the European regulations, the member countries have their own additions.
Because differences between countries can occur, this could result in problems. “You could imagine some countries think differently about the standards and that requirements are lower or different,” Leo says. “Importing from countries with different standards might be appealing, but it could also be focused on the short-term too much. That’s the case for import from Asian countries like China and India, for example, because additional or different standards are in effect for the European market. An additional risk is finding the source of the contamination. The further away the source of the contamination, the more difficult it is to find it.”
Inspections for viruses more important
Although relatively few reports of viruses were made, this category did note an increase of 129 per cent. That’s partially caused by the fact that research is done in this more and more. The norovirus and hepatitis A are two well-known viruses. “Inspections for these viruses are fairly recent, and they’ll only become more and more important in future.” A virus contamination often occurs via water used in the production for irrigation, for instance. “The contamination is on a material used by the processing sector. So if the product isn’t cleaned properly, the contamination could reach the consumer.”
Besides microbiological risks, chemicals, toxins and allergens are another risk, for example. “Mycotoxin can mostly be found in grains, but more and more toxins can now also be found in fruit and vegetables.” In 2017, that figure was 25 per cent higher in fruit and vegetables than in the previous year. “It’s a growing issue,” Leo says. Toxins are components that come from moulds that produce a poisonous by-product. This poisonous by-product could cause diseases. “One example is patulin, which can be found in, for instance, apple juice. More research is being done into this.”
Leo pleads for an open debate about the growing number of researches. “Food safety shouldn’t be up for discussion, but sometimes the regulations are so strict we appear to be suffocating ourselves,” he explains. As an example, he mentions the fipronil affair. Because of a small excess of fipronil in eggs, millions of eggs were destroyed and removed from the shelves. “The lower limit of fipronil can differ per country, but when there’s an excess, the bureaucratic procedure is activated.” Leo puts this development in a broader perspective: “Consumers no longer know where their food comes from. My parents preserved their own vegetables, but much has changed in the past 20 to 30 years. In recent years, that trend has become more obvious.” The media is quick to pick up recall actions, so that the news starts assuming a life of its own. “That creates a trend we’re no longer in control of,” Leo says.
Tip: Pay attention to the circulation of the water
“Many contaminations are due to water management. Contaminations can often be found in sewer drains, so pay attention to the circulation of the water. Prevent leading the contaminated water to different spaces via the sewer drains. This depends on the layout of the factory as well, but it’s these kinds of practical matters that are important. Consult a professional, it’s the least you can do, and when something does happen, your case will be much stronger. An environmental monitoring plan is the minimum of what you could do,” Leo concludes.
Leo van Harten