EU DG Health and Food Safety audit in Sweden – Unexpected flaws in microbial safety of food of non-animal origin

Here below the summary of a recent audit of the EU Commission services on the Swedish official control system for food of non animal origin (in particular frozen food and sprouts/seeds for sprouting). Beside the detected shortcomings, is quite unusual to notice that from internal audits from 2014 and from EU Commission audit in 2015, nothing or little improvements have been made.

“This report describes the outcome of a DG Health and Food Safety audit in Sweden which took place from 18 September to 27 September 2018 under the provisions of Regulation (EC) No 882/2004 of the European Parliament and the Council of 29 April 2004.

The objectives of the audit were to assess:

 the system of official controls in the area of food hygiene to prevent microbiological contamination in the production of food of non-animal origin, notably as frozen products and sprouts and seeds intended for sprouting;

 the extent to which the corrective actions submitted to the Commission services in response to the recommendations of the previous Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety audit report of 2015 have been implemented and their effectiveness in addressing the identified shortcomings.

Overall, a risk-based control system for official controls on food of non-animal origin is in place. There is a system for registering primary producers and for the approval of sprout-producing establishments. This facilitates the implementation of a risk-based approach to official controls including microbial risks associated with food of non-animal origin.

Regarding official samples, the appropriate laboratory capability and capacity is available.

Significant shortcomings were identified in relation to the registration of food business operators and approval of sprout-producing establishments. The approval system does not ensure that noncompliances have been rectified before that approval is granted. In addition, the official control system presents a number of gaps, notably related to provision of specific instructions, technical support and staff training. As a result, official controls cannot be implemented correctly and effectively, resulting in poor controls. This impacts on the enforcement, where non-compliances are hardly detected and when detected are rarely followed-up.

A number of these shortcomings were equally reflected in the outcome of an internal audit performed by the Central Competent Authority
in June 2018, and which found little corrective action since the previous internal audit, in 2014.

Thus, non-compliant products might be undetected and the correct application of the relevant legislation might not be enforced, resulting in placing on the market of non-compliant products which may present a health risk.

In respect of the follow-up to the previous audit, certain actions have not been effective in addressing the identified shortcomings. Overall, the audit had to conclude that there has been limited improvement compared to what was found previously.”

(Source: DG Sante website)

EU Audit in Belgium on organic production and labeling – Are we still surprised of “organic frauds”?

Here below the summary of the above mentioned audit report:

“This report describes the outcome of a DG Health and Food Safety audit in Belgium, carried out between 19 September 2017 to 29 September 2017, under the provisions of Regulation (EC) No 882/2004 on official food and feed controls.

The objective of the audit was to evaluate the controls on organic production and labelling of organic products.

The control system for organic production in Belgium is only partially in place. There is no competent authority responsible for import controls of organic goods, and market controls only cover follow up of complaints and control bodies are not annually supervised by all regional competent authorities.

Although inspections by control bodies at operators are overall effective and the number of additional and unannounced inspections and sampling by control bodies goes far beyond EU requirements, enforcement is weak, in particular, in cases of severe and recurrent irregularities.

This, together with the fact that the likelihood of irregularities are neither reported to competent authorities nor fully investigated by them reduces the effectiveness of the control system.”

This report highlights some typical factors that increase the likelihood of frauds in the organic sector:

  • weak import controls are the main gate for fraudulent activities. The organic market is assuming a huge dimension in EU and we cannot rely on internal production to cover the needs of raw materials. Certain commodities are in large parte – or mainly – imported: this is the case for instance of many grains and cereals, lentils, tree nuts…
  • the hybrid nature of the control bodies (CBs) is a major weakness as well: in most Member States they are private bodies invested of a public function (namely do the controls for the competent authorities). That means that they have the obligation to report irregularities to the competent authorities (CAs), but they are also competing hard with other CBs to survive on the market. Therefore they could be not so keen to share information about investigations, especially on sensitive cases, with the CAs. They often tend to protect the certified food business operators, that to a certain extent are also their “clients”;
  • the weak supervision of the CAs on the CBs can foster illegality and in any case allows a less transparent management of non compliance cases, for reasons explained in point 2.

The good news is that in most countries the number of inspections is above EU requirements and that they are unannounced, but in our experience on the ground in several Member States the CBs are too focused on paperwork and much less on the fields. An illegal treatment of crops might be spotted much better from a walk beneath them, than from a registry.

Consumers and regulators often rely on labeling and traceability as tools to prevent similar frauds (conventional food passed as organic, country of origin different from what declared), but since these tool are only “paper” they are quite easy to fake for any experienced fraudster. Moreover, they increase the final costs of the products, increasing as well incentives for fraudsters.

The organic sector is mainly involved in what we can call “commercial frauds”: they involve quality and usually are not likely to cause any risk for the public health. As a consequence, in my opinion, this could be one of the sectors where new technologies that might secure transactions along the supply chain and reinforce traceability, including blockchain, should be applied first and get the better added value.