— OPINION —
Will 2022 be remembered as the year of Salmonella in chocolate or Cronobacter in infant formula? Or did something else grab and keep your attention in the past 12 months?
Sometimes it feels as if all I’ve been writing about since 2020 is coronavirus, the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, and ethylene oxide contamination. While this isn’t the case, these three subjects did feature again on the 2022 news agenda, so we’ll address them first.
Major outbreaks of Listeria in Italy and E. coli in the UK, Salmonella Mbandaka in several countries, and Hepatitis A in New Zealand surfaced while the Salmonella tahini/halva incident rumbled on.
This year also threw up some different topics as well as outbreaks and recalls. We had drugs in champagne, pet food contamination, bird flu, poppy seed poisonings, and poisoned alcohol.
- Coronavirus and food outbreak and illness statistics
As predicted last year, in most countries outbreaks and illness reports went up in 2021 from 2020 but are still below levels pre-COVID-19 pandemic. This is backed up by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) report on outbreaks and illnesses in 2021. The virus hasn’t gone away but restrictions have eased so it is likely levels will go up again when we see 2022 figures and we may get back to pre-pandemic numbers.
It was six years ago when the UK decided to exit the EU in a referendum. We’ve heard plenty about lost access to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) portal and networks such as the Heads of Food Safety Agencies. But Brexit keeps throwing up new issues. Whether it is the Northern Ireland protocol, delays to border controls, an impact on resources — highlighted by the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland recently — or The Retained EU Law Bill that aims to remove EU laws from UK legislation by 2023, although this date can be extended until 2026. Initial analysis by the FSA shows it intends to advise ministers to either preserve, extend or restate the majority of the rules it deals with.
As a quick refresher, Belgium raised the alert in September 2020 concerning sesame seeds from India. It was later found in additives including locust bean gum. The use of ethylene oxide to disinfect foodstuffs is not permitted in Europe. National authorities have taken different approaches including recalls and withdrawals. The European Union has tightened rules several times to tackle the problem. The incident appears to be winding down with the removal of related pages on the EU Commission’s website but RASFF notifications continue. It was the biggest food recall operation in EU history, according to the Alert and Cooperation Network (ACN) report.
- Large French E. coli outbreak
Frozen pizzas were behind the largest E. coli-HUS outbreak ever seen in France. Nestlé has recently been allowed to restart operations at the Buitoni plant in Caudry after production was stopped in April. Overall, 56 confirmed and two probable cases with a median age of 6 fell sick between mid-January and April. There were 50 cases of kidney failure known as Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) and two children died. Most illnesses were Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) O26:H11 but a couple of O103:H2 infections were recorded. In France, STEC surveillance is based only on HUS in children younger than 15, so it is likely many more people were sick. Outbreak strains were isolated from pizzas sampled in patients’ homes and at the manufacturing plant. E. coli was also found in the flour used to make pizzas. Criminal and civil proceedings are ongoing.
Salmonella in confectionery has been a major theme this year. We start with the monophasic Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak from Kinder chocolate made by Ferrero in Belgium that sickened 450 people in multiple countries. Children were particularly affected and many were hospitalized. People fell sick between December 2021 and June 2022. There were four cases in Canada and one in the United States. The Arlon facility was given the all-clear in September after being shut in April. An investigation by the Luxembourg Public Prosecutor’s Office is ongoing.
In Israel, Strauss Group issued a product recall and closed a factory in April due to Salmonella. The plant in Nof Hagalil restarted in August. Elite products were recalled from the United States, Australia, Europe, and the UK with related illnesses reported in Israel. Estimated costs are around $90 million.
Barry Callebaut also felt the impact of Salmonella contamination despite implicated chocolate not entering the retail chain. The cost was $77 million, according to the company’s financial results. The Wieze factory in Belgium paused operations after Salmonella Tennessee was detected in lecithin from a supplier in Hungary in June.
While on the subject of lecithin, it is also worth mentioning an issue with soya lecithin from India because of potential peanut contamination. The problem was raised by Germany via a RASFF alert in April and affected 60 countries including the United States. It was believed to have been caused by cross-contamination during processing. Soybean lecithin is used in a range of foods, such as chocolate, cheese, margarine, and salad dressing.
- Cronobacter in infant formula
The main Cronobacter in the infant formula story is from the United States and involves Abbott Nutrition’s Sturgis, MI, plant. Four infants were infected with Cronobacter and two died. Abbott says there is no conclusive evidence that the illnesses were connected to its product.
In Europe, a brand of infant formula was recalled in November in Slovakia and the Czech Republic because of Cronobacter. The affected goat’s milk formula was made by Goldim.
Cronobacter was also detected in another formula from a different producer in the Czech Republic and sent to Moldova. Numil initial infant milk formula made by Corinos House was recalled in June.
Earlier in 2022, a batch of KetoCal 3:1 was positive for Cronobacter after sampling by Australian customs officials. Nutricia, which is owned by Danone, said the affected batch was made in Europe and was negative before leaving the production plant.
We also found out about an outbreak of Cronobacter sakazakii involving four babies and one death at a hospital in Germany in 2021. It was due to the hospital-mixed probiotic infant formula.
In early 2022, a warning about champagne contaminated with ecstasy in Europe was issued by authorities. Eight people fell sick in February in Germany and one died. There were also four illnesses in the Netherlands. Bottles of Moët and Chandon Ice Imperial were emptied of champagne, and the corks changed and filled with pure liquid MDMA, also known as ecstasy. An investigation involved Europol and agencies in France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands.
- Monoethylene glycol is back in the news
While there were developments in the Cervejaria Backer brewery contamination case of 2020 in Brazil linked to 10 deaths — including fines and the firm being given the approval to restart beer sales — mono ethylene glycol hit the headlines for other reasons.
The toxic substance was used instead of propylene glycol, a permitted additive, in pet food. Six companies that produced dog food were involved: Bassar Pet Food, Peppy Pet, Upper Dog, Petitos, Pets Mellon, and FVO Alimentos. Five suppliers were listed by Brazilian authorities: Tecnoclean Industrial, A, and D Quimica, Atias Quimica, Bella Donna, and Saber Quimica. Local media reported that at least 15 dogs died.
The World Health Organization (WHO) launched its food safety strategy for 2022 to 2030. One target is a 40 percent reduction by 2030 in the global average of foodborne diarrheal disease incidence. The first progress report will be in 2024 at the World Health Assembly.
In early December, the Council of FAO endorsed the strategic priorities for food safety within the FAO Strategic Framework for 2022 to 2031. FAO hopes it will spur investments and secure human and financial resources for the agency to implement its food safety program and to provide international guidance, policy, and advocacy for policymakers.
Work has also started to update estimates on the burden of foodborne diseases published in 2015. The Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG) has issued a few calls for help with systematic reviews and other studies. A new report is planned for 2025.
There are many topics around food safety that I feel don’t get enough column inches — such as heavy metals, mycotoxins, and pesticide residues, and those that are only mentioned occasionally like wild mushroom poisonings, foodborne parasites, and allergens. One issue, in particular, cropped up several times this year — tainted alcohol. It was responsible for illnesses and deaths in India, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Uganda, Vietnam, and Turkiye. If food safety is “Everyone’s Responsibility,” as we are often told, then we have a lot of things to be getting on with in 2023.
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