Food Standards Scotland vows to tackle foodborne illness

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Taking action to prevent foodborne illness is one of the priorities identified by Food Standards Scotland (FSS) as part of its new 5-year strategy.

Reported cases of foodborne disease have remained relatively consistent during the past 15 years.

Jacqui McElhiney, head of science at FSS, said foodborne illness continues to be an important public health problem for Scotland.

“We therefore aim to take a more targeted approach to reduce the burden of infection by making better use of the data collected by both ourselves and Public Health Scotland (PHS) to identify where we can make the greatest impact: helping to control transmission and protect the population groups that are most vulnerable,” McElhiney said.

Reducing Campylobacter
Campylobacter is the most common cause of bacterial foodborne illness with about 6,500 cases reported in Scotland annually, although it could be as high as 54,000 because of underreporting with direct healthcare costs of about £3 million ($4.2 million) each year. Next come norovirus and Salmonella. Work with Public Health Scotland has shown that 14 percent of Campylobacter cases require admission to hospitals.

“Chicken is the most important source of Campylobacter infection and the UK poultry industry has made significant progress in controlling contamination from the farm through to retail,” said McElhiney.

“Our surveillance has indicated that there is still scope to reduce the risks of transmission through the handling of raw chicken both in retail settings and in the home. Research we have conducted with PHS has also shown that in Scotland, Campylobacter infection has the most serious consequences for older people and those living in more deprived areas. We can use this evidence to tailor our guidance and advice to areas of risk – helping businesses and consumers to adopt the controls and good hygiene practices which are effective in tackling Campylobacter.”

Reducing illness caused by Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) is also a priority for FSS. Compared with Campylobacter, STEC is responsible for significantly fewer reported cases each year, however, it can result in more severe illness. Rates of STEC infection are highest in children.

Make the most impact
The 2021 to 2026 strategy states that FSS will make better use of epidemiological and genomic sequencing data to identify the best ways to reduce the burden of foodborne illness.

“Advances in data science have transformed methods for identifying the sources and transmission routes for foodborne illness through the advent of Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS),” according to the document.

Geoff Ogle, FSS chief executive, said the agency will continue to ensure food is safe and authentic.

“Significant issues and societal changes such as EU Exit and COVID-19 have dramatically changed our way of life and will have an impact for years to come, while climate change presents future challenges with respect to security, nutritional quality and the safety of our food chain,” he said.

“Online food sales is a challenge in terms of the changing environment and it is an issue a number of regulators are dealing with. In terms of unregistered food businesses, clearly even if you are setting up in a home to sell some cakes online you have to register with the local authority and we have put reinforcement messages out around the importance of that.”

Ian McWatt, deputy chief executive and director of policy, science and operations, said the authority is well placed with the development of the Scottish National Database (SND), which offers a real time link into 32 local authorities, to collect data from environmental health officers dealing with food businesses.

“We are tracking very closely the number of unregistered businesses and we are working with the Scottish Food Enforcement Liaison Committee and that’s where we address some of the key priorities that are coming out from the data that we find from SND. Online sales is an area of key focus during this strategy period.”

Food crime focus
The strategy also covers the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit (SFCIU), which gathers intelligence on areas of the food chain most vulnerable to fraud. Evidence suggests smaller businesses manufacturing perishable foods and high value products with Scottish provenance can be particularly at risk.

Ron McNaughton, head of SFCIU, said the agency hasn’t seen an increase in food crime during the pandemic.

“The vast majority of food businesses are reputable and strive to produce safe food, unfortunately there are a small minority of individuals who will look to profit from those fraud opportunities that may arise, such as the pandemic,” he said.

“We have seen quite a few academic commentators that have suggested we may still have to see what the outcome is because we are not far enough into the pandemic. As it stands at the moment we are not seeing an increase in intelligence highlighting an increase in food crime but there is always that opportunity because of pressures on global food supply chains.”

McNaughton also spoke about Operation Opson, which is coordinated by Europol and Interpol, and the Global Alliance on Food Crime, which includes the UK, U.S., New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

“We’ve been involved in Operation Opson for the last six years although the pandemic restricted the operation last year we will be starting to plan over the next few months with a view to commencing activities around November,” he said.

“The aim of the Global Alliance on Food Crime is to reduce the threat from food crime, reducing the vulnerability to industry and consumers and building domestic and global capability. Our main focus of this work over the coming year will be to build a global intelligence sharing network.”

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