Public health annual report details foodborne illnesses, impact of COVID

Public health annual report details foodborne illnesses, impact of COVID

by Sue Jones
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There was a decline in reports of four foodborne pathogens and the number of incidents and recalls in the past year, according to the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) annual report.

It covers activities in 2020-2021 across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK leaving the European Union, as well as enforcement and food crime statistics.

Confirmed laboratory reports of foodborne illnesses dropped for four pathogens in 2020 compared to 2019. Campylobacter went down to 49,222, E. coli O157 to 566, Salmonella was at 4,442, and Listeria with 136. This may be because of factors such as underreporting in confirmed lab reports as well as changes in food behaviors and hand hygiene, according to the report.

The FSA is doing surveys on infectious intestinal disease during the COVID-19 pandemic and an analysis of hospital admissions to estimate the impact of the pandemic on foodborne disease.

Emily Miles, FSA chief executive, said the agency tried to ease pressure on local authorities, helping them prioritize food standards interventions and reduce traffic in businesses to minimize non-essential contact.

“We diverted people to COVID-19 which meant slowdown in some activity, as shown in the program milestones in this report, and underspend. To mitigate the loss of access to the EU’s incident identification systems, we developed the FSA’s capability to detect, respond to and prevent food safety incidents. The changes we implemented were delivered in time for Jan. 1, but now we must continue to work hard and be vigilant to ensure consumers remain protected,” she said.

“We have made some progress on our Achieving Business Compliance program, which is developing a new regulatory model to give us more scope to protect consumers within the rapidly evolving global food system. We are also working toward modernizing the way official controls for meat, dairy and wine are delivered so we can drive improvements with greater efficiency and resilience.”

Sampling, incidents and alerts
There was a 70 percent reduction in the amount of samples handled by official labs early in the pandemic. In total, 7,510 samples were taken as part of the FSA’s activities. The agency developed a short-term sampling program targeted at food risks associated with supply chain disruption during the pandemic.

A total of 2,157 notifications for food, feed and environmental contamination incidents in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were investigated by the FSA during 2020-2021. This represents a decrease from 2,478 in 2019-2020.

The number of alerts in 2020-2021 was 136. This included 65 allergy alerts, 70 product recall notices and one food alert for action. In 2019-2020, the overall figure was 178.

This decline reflects the fewer food businesses trading during the pandemic, as well as factors such as fewer new launches coming on the market and a reduction in the complexity of product ranges offered, according to the report.

FSA audited 514 food businesses in the 2020-2021 financial year. The program in meat establishments was deferred for three months beginning in April 2020. This did not apply to sites in the “Improvement necessary” or “Urgent improvement necessary” categories at their latest audit, nor plants exporting to other countries that were audited remotely.

The number of food hygiene ratings issued during 2020-2021 was much lower than previous years but there was a sharp increase in businesses awaiting their first inspection. A total of 30 percent of outlets awaiting inspection were categorized as other catering premises, which includes home caterers. As restrictions are lifted, authorities anticipated a number of these will stop operating.

Enforcement action from April 2020 to March 2021, included 50 hygiene improvements and 107 remedial action notices compared to 126 and 150 in the same period in 2019-2020.

During 2020-2021, four cases investigated by the FSA for breaches of food hygiene rules went to court with convictions against five defendants. Another 13 were ongoing. There were 91 investigation referrals in England and Wales during 2019-2020 with no prosecution taken on 58 occasions.

Food crime operations
Ruth Hussey, FSA interim chair, said it had been a challenging year with COVID-19 and the transition period of leaving the European Union.

“Where enforcement priorities were adapted to respond to the pandemic, they made sure that food safety was not compromised. Action was also taken quickly to ensure FSA vets and meat hygiene inspectors were able to continue their vital work assuring safety of the meat supply chain,” she said.

“The chief executive told the board in December that despite extensive preparations there would inevitably be issues that the FSA will not have been able to prepare for, meaning that agility post-transition period would be as important as its planning.”

Thirteen COVID-19 infections involved frontline staff carrying out their regulatory role at three food businesses.

The National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) was part of 70 investigations in 2020-2021. There were no people charged or within a criminal justice process from an NFCU-led investigation, but there will be operations which will result in a case file to the Crown Prosecution Service in 2021-2022, according to the report.

Within three weeks the NFCU ran an operation that led to the seizure of 20 tons of meat products, which the unit thought was going to be used to commit fraud. Products were also seized in action against an individual convicted of selling 2,4-dinitrophenol (DNP).

“Although the pandemic has created new risk areas for food fraud linked to disruption to supply chain authenticity checks and regulatory activity, and to new patterns of consumer demand and restricted supply, the evidence that criminals have exploited these risks remains limited,” said the report.

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