The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has published new guidance to assist growers with the safe production of fresh produce on farms.
The guidance and its accompanying simplified leaflet outlines the potential risks associated with fresh produce and provides practical advice to growers to reduce this risk and improve food safety. They were developed in conjunction with an expert working group comprising growers, processors, retailers, State bodies and former representatives. Fresh produce (which includes fresh fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, sprouted seeds, edible flowers and herbs) is an integral component of the Irish diet and its popularity and consumption continues to increase. As such, it is important that growers producing fresh produce in Ireland use good agricultural and hygiene practices to reduce risk and improve the safety of fresh produce for all consumers.
The new guidance comes at a time when outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with fresh produce are increasing. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has identified that fresh produce such as leafy greens; bulb and stem vegetables; tomatoes; melons; fresh pods, legumes or grains; sprouted seeds and berries pose the highest risks to consumers. In 2013, frozen berries caused 240 confirmed cases of hepatitis, with a probable 1,075 further cases across 11 European countries, including Ireland. The FSAI’s advice to boil all frozen imported berries before consumption is still in place, as contaminated berries could still be circulating in the food chain.
According to Dr Pamela Byrne, Chief Executive, FSAI anything which comes into contact with fresh produce has the potential to cause contamination and it is vital that growers take the necessary steps to limit contamination of fresh produce in the first instance.
“A lot of fresh produce is eaten raw such as fruits, vegetables and herbs, so any harmful bugs that may be in the produce will not be removed by cooking. This places a big onus on growers to use good agricultural and hygiene practices to reduce the risk of contamination of fresh produce,” said Dr Byrne.
The guidance makes it clear that anyone producing fresh produce for sale must be registered as a grower with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The guidance goes on to highlight eight key areas which growers should address to help reduce risk and improve food safety, including:
Choose the right site to grow fresh produce
Restrict the access of animals, pests and people to that site
Use organic fertilisers safely
Use pesticides safely
Source and use a safe water supply
Use good harvesting practices
Train staff and provide good staff facilities
Put a system of traceability and recall in place
The FSAI acknowledges and thanks the working group* who assisted in developing the guidance document. It was comprised of growers, processors, retailers as well as representatives of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Bord Bia, Teagasc, the EPA and the Irish Farmers Association. The new guidance document and leaflet are available for free download at www.fsai.ie.
The company was also found guilty of applying false Irish slaughter and cutting plant codes to packaging labels and of having an inadequate traceability plan for the products. It was fined a total of €16,000.
The District Court judge told the firm that this was a very serious matter and constituted a fraud not only on the consumer, but on the entire industry.
Why is the FSAI reiterating its advice to boil imported frozen berries for one minute? As a result of recent outbreaks of norovirus in Sweden and hepatitis A virus in Australia, both of which have been linked to the consumption of imported frozen berries, the FSAI is reiterating its advice to continue to boil imported frozen berries for one minute before consumption. This is particularly important when serving these foods to vulnerable people such as nursing home residents. The outbreak in Sweden occurred in a nursing home in the beginning of May, causing 70 people to become ill with norovirus. Three deaths are reported to have been potentially linked to this outbreak. Contrary to national food safety advice in Sweden, the frozen imported raspberries were served uncooked in a dessert. Microbiological analysis confirmed the presence of norovirus in the frozen berries.
Could contaminated imported frozen berries be on sale in Ireland? There is no indication that batches of berries implicated in the recent Swedish and Australian outbreaks have been imported into Ireland. These outbreaks, however, demonstrate an ongoing risk in the global imported frozen berry supply chain.
How do I know if frozen berries are imported? If the label does not state the country of origin, you should assume that the berries are imported. The shop where you purchased the berries may be able to provide this information.
Will retailers be displaying notices about the requirement to boil imported frozen berries?
Retailers selling imported frozen berries need to ensure that the berries they use are sourced from reputable suppliers operating effective food safety management systems and comprehensive traceability systems. As the food chain can be quite complex, it is necessary for food businesses at each stage of the food chain to seek assurances regarding the effectiveness of the food safety management systems in place from their suppliers. If such assurances are not available, the FSAI recommends that the retailer displays a notice advising customers that the frozen berries should be boiled for one minute before consumption.
How do I know that the berries used by food businesses (e.g. smoothie bars, cake manufacturers, etc.) are safe to eat? Food businesses using imported frozen berries need to ensure that the berries they use are sourced from reputable suppliers operating effective food safety management systems and comprehensive traceability systems. As the food chain can be quite complex, it is necessary for food businesses at each stage of the food chain to seek assurances regarding the effectiveness of the food safety management systems in place from their suppliers. If such assurances are not available, the FSAI recommends that the berries should be boiled for one minute before being used in foods.
What if I have some berries in my freezer at home – are these safe to eat? If the berries are imported you should boil them for one minute before consumption. Boiling for one minute will destroy viruses, if present.
Are fresh berries safe/ok to eat? There is no evidence to suggest that fresh Irish or fresh imported berries are a risk. Fresh berries should be washed before consumption which is in keeping with the advice for all fresh fruit and vegetables.
Can I eat the berries I grow in my own garden? Yes, this issue only relates to frozen imported berries and so this advice does not apply to berries grown in your own garden and frozen after picking.
Why are imported frozen berries more of a risk than other types of berries? Across Europe, more outbreaks have been linked to imported frozen berries than to other types of berries. Freezing preserves viruses such as norovirus and hepatitis A.
Are all frozen berries a risk? This safety advice refers to imported frozen berries, such as raspberries, strawberries, redcurrants, blackberries, blackcurrants and blueberries. However, as a precaution, we are advising that all imported frozen berries should be boiled for one minute before consumption.
Are tinned berries also a risk? No, tinned or canned berries have not been identified as a risk.
What if I have eaten frozen berries recently, without boiling them? The time from consumption of contaminated food to the onset of illness with hepatitis A, ranges from 15-50 days, with the average being 28 days. In the case of norovirus, symptoms usually appear around 12 to 48 hours after consuming contaminated food. If you think that you have consumed frozen berries and may be ill as a result, you should seek medical advice. This applies in all cases if you believe that any food you have eaten has made you ill.
Should I stop buying frozen berries? No, there is no need to stop buying frozen berries. Frozen imported berries should be boiled before eating until further notice.
I have given my toddler/child puree made from frozen berries, should I be worried? If you are concerned about your toddler/child, you should seek medical advice but you should not be concerned about giving them berries that have been boiled. Boiling for one minute will destroy viruses, if present.
What is hepatitis A and what are the symptoms? Hepatitis A infection is an acute disease of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus. There are five main hepatitis viruses, referred to as types A, B, C, D and E. Illness usually starts about 28 days after exposure to the virus, but it can start anytime between 15 and 50 days after infection. The most common symptoms are fever, loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue and abdominal pain, followed within a few days by jaundice. The disease often fails to show the noticeable symptoms or is mild, particularly in children below five years. Jaundice occurs in 70-80% of people aged over 14 years and less than 10% of children younger than six years. Symptoms may last from one or two weeks to a number of months. Prolonged, relapsing hepatitis for up to one year occurs in 15% of cases.
How is hepatitis A virus spread ? Hepatitis A is a human virus that is primarily spread from person-to-person via the faecal-oral route. The virus is shed in the faeces of infected people. It may also be spread through food that has been contaminated by infected food handlers or by contaminated water. People who have the virus are most infectious in the week or two before onset of symptoms and may be infectious up to one week after onset.
What is norovirus and what are the symptoms? Norovirus is one of the most common causes of gastroenteritis. Symptoms include – nausea (often sudden onset), vomiting (often projectile) and watery diarrhoea. Symptoms begin around 12 to 48 hours after becoming infected. The illness is usually brief, with symptoms lasting only about 1 or 2 days. Most people make a full recovery within 1-2 days, however some people (usually the very young or elderly) may become very dehydrated and require hospital treatment.d
How is norovirus spread? Noroviruses are very contagious and can spread easily from person-to-person. Both the faeces and vomit of an infected person contain the virus and are infectious. People infected with norovirus are contagious from the moment they begin feeling ill to 2/3 days after recovery. Some people may be contagious for as long as 2 weeks after recovery. It is important for people to use good handwashing and other hygienic practices after they have recently recovered from norovirus illness. In addition, noroviruses are very resilient and can survive in the environment (e.g. on surfaces) for a number of weeks.
How might berries become contaminated with norovirus and hepatitis A virus? Contamination could occur on the farm, through use of sewage-contaminated agricultural water or through contamination by infected workers. Cross-contamination could occur post-harvest along the supply chain, through contact with contaminated surfaces of machines, equipment and facilities during freezing, mixing and packaging processes.
When did the FSAI first recommend boiling of imported frozen berries? The FSAI first issued this advice in 2013, during the investigation of an outbreak of hepatitis A virus in Ireland which was linked to imported frozen berries. The outbreak turned out to be part of a multi-state outbreak, with over 1,000 cases reported in 12 EU countries.
What was the source of contamination of the frozen berries in the 2013 hepatitis A virus outbreak? The multi-state investigation did not identify the source of the contamination. The investigation concluded that contamination could have occurred at the freezing processor or at the primary production stage. It highlighted the importance of compliance with Good Hygiene Practice (GHP) and Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) and cautioned that contaminated product related to the outbreak could still be circulating in the food chain.
What was the evidence that linked imported frozen berries with the 2013 multi-state hepatitis A virus outbreak in Europe? Contaminated batches of mixed frozen berries/berry-containing products were identified in Italy, France and Norway and were recalled from the market. This evidence together with epidemiological and environmental investigations from the affected countries identified frozen berries as the mostly likely vehicle ofinfection for this outbreak and suggested that it could be a single outbreak linked to a common, continuous source of contamination. At the request of the European Commission, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) coordinated the tracing activities of affected Member States. This work involved collecting data on the source of each berry delivery from retail sale back to the farmer to see if a common source or sources of contamination could be identified. Bulgarian blackberries and Polish redcurrants were identified as the most common ingredient in the food consumed by affected people. However, this might be explained by the fact that Poland is the largest producer of redcurrants in Europe, and Bulgaria is a major exporter of frozen blackberries. While no single point source of contamination was identified, twelve food operators were identified with links to cases and batches in five of the countries affected.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) reports that six Closure Orders were served on food businesses during the month of February for breaches of food safety legislation, pursuant to the FSAI Act, 1998 and the EC (Official Control of Foodstuffs) Regulations, 2010. The Closure Orders were issued by environmental health officers in the Health Service Executive (HSE).
Dr Pamela Byrne, Chief Executive, FSAI stated that consumers must be confident at all times that the food they are eating is safe to eat, adding, “There can be no excuse for putting consumers’ health at risk through negligent practices. Food businesses must recognise that they have a legal responsibility to make sure that the food they sell or serve is safe to consume. We are re-emphasising to all food businesses the need for ongoing and consistent compliance with food safety and hygiene legislation. This requires putting appropriate food safety management procedures in place and making sure they are strictly adhered to at all times.”
Corleggy Cheeses is recalling all batches of its raw milk cheeses due to the detection of verocytotoxigenic Escherichia coli (VTEC) in two batches of its cow’s milk cheese. The cheeses are supplied to some restaurants and retail shops. They are also sold directly at food markets. Consumers are advised not to eat the affected cheeses.
VTEC may cause severe bloody diarrhoea and abdominal cramps, although sometimes the infection causes non-bloody diarrhoea or no symptoms. In some groups, particularly children under 5 years of age and the elderly, the infection can also cause a complication called haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) in which the kidneys fail.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland says, sous vide, which is French for ‘under vacuum’, is a method of cooking where food is vacuum-packed in a plastic pouch and heated in a temperature controlled bath for a defined length of time.
This cooking method can present some food safety risks which should be identified and controlled. These include the potential for survival and growth of bacteria that can grow under the anaerobic (absence of oxygen) conditions created by the vacuum packaging, e.g. Clostridium botulinum.
Due to the rise in the use of the sous vide cooking in restaurants and catering establishments, the FSAI has prepared a factsheet which highlights the risks associated with this method of cooking. It provides guidance on managing these risks, in particular guidance on cooking temperatures and times. It also makes recommendations for cooling, storing and reheating food that has been cooked by sous vide.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland reports this survey investigated the microbiological safety of ready-to-eat, pre-cut and pre-packaged fresh herbs and salad leaves available at retail sale in Ireland.
Over 1,000 samples were tested for the presence of Salmonella and enumerated for Listeria monocytogenes. Salmonella was detected in only 0.1% (1/1,005) of samples; this was a bag of rocket leaves grown in Italy from which S. Napoli was isolated. L. monocytogenes was below the limit of enumeration (<10 cfu/g) for 99.8% (998/1,000) of samples and at 10 cfu/g for the remaining two samples, all well below the maximum legal limit of 100 cfu/g.
Some samples were tested for the presence of verotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC). In total, 0/247 samples tested using the CEN/ISO TS 13136 method (which targets the major VTEC virulence genes stx and eae) were positive. In addition, 0/397 samples tested specifically for E. coli O26 were positive and although 1/403 samples tested specifically for the presence of E. coli O157 was positive, the isolate did not contain the genes required to produce verotoxin and therefore, was not of clinical significance.
This survey was carried out from June to October, the months when Irish produce was most likely on sale. Irish origin produce made up 62% of the samples tested in this survey, none of which were unsatisfactory.
Producers labelled fresh herbs and salad leaves with a wide range of storage instructions, particularly in relation to the temperature for chilled storage. Maximum storage temperatures as low as 3oC were recommended by some producers; however, the national recommended temperature for chilled storage is 0-5 oC. Food business operators that package ready-to-eat, pre-cut, fresh herbs and salad leaves should also be aware that the temperature in domestic fridges is generally higher than at retail and wholesale level.
In total, 87% of samples were stored or displayed in refrigerated conditions at the time the sample was collected.
The air temperature of the refrigeration unit for the majority (77%) of these samples was ≤5 oC. However, the air temperature of the refrigeration unit for 23% of chilled samples was >5oC. Indeed, an air temperature of 7.1oC was measured for the refrigeration unit in which the Salmonella-positive bag of rocket leaves was stored. This temperature could allow Salmonella numbers on the already contaminated product to increase if the shelf-life is sufficiently long. Food business operators should ensure that refrigeration units do not exceed the maximum chilled temperature of 5oC.
The bag of rocket in which Salmonella was detected was labelled as already washed. Washing (with or without the presence of sanitisers) cannot eliminate pathogens on fresh produce. Therefore, producers must take all reasonable measures to control potential points of contamination in the field, during harvesting, processing and distribution; for example using guides to good practice such as the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) Code of
Practice for Food Safety in the Fresh Produce Supply Chain (FSAI, 2001a). In addition, food business operators should ensure that their traceability records for the fresh herbs and salad leaves are robust, as this will facilitate rapid control measures to be implemented should a pathogen be detected in a batch of fresh herbs or salad leaves or if they are implicated in an outbreak of illness. The FSAI has produced Guidance Note No.10 on
Product Recall and Traceability (FSAI, 2013).
Survey of the microbiological safety of ready-to-eat, pre-cut and pre-packaged fresh herbs and salad leaves from retail establishments in Ireland (13NS7)
Food scares will always come and go, whether it’s horse meat, dioxins in pork or BSE. But when the next crisis arrives, there will be a new face leading the response at the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.
Dr Pamela Byrne (right, exactly as shown) became chief executive of the agency in March, taking over from Prof Alan Reilly. The environmental toxicologist from Cork is the first woman to head the authority but she won’t feel outnumbered because 75 per cent of her staff are female.
There are about 80 people working in the agency but she has received sanction from the Department of Health to fill several vacancies that remained unfilled because of the State recruitment embargo.
She says her job is to protect consumers’ health and that ensuring that all food ingredients are traceable is a key part of this. “Traceability within food business systems is going to be critically important,” she says.
“With globalisation of the food supply chain, we have ingredients coming from a number of different sources. We have products coming in from a number of different sources. And we have a lot of products going out.
“With the intended expansion of the food industry, it’s going to be really important that robust traceability systems are in place. And it’s also going to help us in terms of understanding where there might be new and emerging risks.”
The value of food and drink exports has grown from €7.1 billion in 2009 to €10.5 billion but Byrne says this growth also presents challenges. “As anything gets bigger there’s always going to be a need to make sure that those systems are fit for purpose. Food businesses are sourcing ingredients from all over the world and they must make sure their suppliers are reputable.” Exotic tastes But with increasingly exotic tastes being catered for, isn’t it impossible to ensure that all 21 ingredients in one recipe, for example, can be traced back to source and vouched for? “No, I don’t think it’s impossible,” she says. “A reputable food business operator who is sourcing ingredients from multiple sources all over the world should put in the systems to make sure that they are convinced of the reputable nature of every supplier.”
She says the horse meat crisis heightened everyone’s awareness of what can go wrong in the food industry.
So where will the next food scare come from? The authority is working with its European counterparts in investigations into the substitution of lower-value fish species for higher-value species, and the passing off of lower-quality honey as manuka honey.
Byrne also says her agency and the Department of Agriculture are leading a drive to reduce outbreaks of the food-poisoning bacterium campylobacter and are bringing chicken producers, processors and retailers together to do this.
In other Irish news, 15 enforcement orders – 14 closures and one prohibition — were served on food businesses in May, the highest number of closures in one month so far this year.
Dr Pamela Byrne, Chief Executive, FSAI warns that the legal onus is on food businesses to act responsibly and ensure that the food they serve and sell is safe to eat at all times. She states that every Closure Order undermines the confidence consumers should expect to have in the safety of the food they eat. This has negative implications not only for the premises involved, but for the wider food industry.
“Most food businesses follow high standards and are compliant with food safety legislation. However, inspectors continue to encounter cases where consumers’ health is jeopardised through a failure to comply with food safety and hygiene requirements,” says Dr Byrne says. “There can be no excuse for such breaches and negligent practices. They are avoidable when food businesses have proper food safety management systems in place.”