EU sees rise in fraud exchanges and RASFF alerts in 2021

There was an increase in the number of food safety reports on a platform managed by the European Commission in 2021, according to a new report.

The Alert and Cooperation Network (ACN) includes the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), Administrative Assistance and Cooperation system (AAC) and the Food Fraud Network (FFN).

In 2021, 4,607 notifications were sent through RASFF with 4,102 related to food, which was almost a 20 percent increase compared to 2020.

Pesticides were the main hazard notified, representing 27 percent of the health-related notifications. As in 2020, many notices related to a major ethylene oxide incident. The unauthorized substance was mentioned 468 times and led to the biggest food recall operation in EU history, according to the report.

The basis for food reports were mostly an official control on the market, followed by a company’s own check. Only 4 percent were due to consumer complaints.

Issues behind the notifications
Regarding origin of non-compliant products, Poland was the top EU country at 381 notifications with 263 because of Salmonella in poultry meat, which in 154 cases were notified by Poland itself. France, Germany and Spain all had more than 200.

Considering non-EU countries, Turkey was first with 613 notifications, mainly related to findings of pesticides, followed by India, China, Brazil, the United Kingdom and United States.

The top recurring issues involved pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables from Turkey, Salmonella in poultry meat from Poland and in herbs and spices from Brazil. Aflatoxins in nut products and seeds from the United States also made the top 10.

There were 863 reports for pathogenic microorganisms and three-quarters were because of the presence of Salmonella. In almost half of them, Salmonella was detected in poultry meat products, mainly with a Polish origin. In nearly 150 reports the implicated product came from the herbs and spices category and often was black pepper from Brazil. Listeria monocytogenes was next with 138 alerts and 89 were because of E. coli.

In 33 foodborne outbreaks reported in RASFF, 14 listed Salmonella as the cause, four each were linked to Listeria monocytogenes and histamine, and three each to norovirus and E. coli.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) were involved in five joint report summary (JNS) multi-country outbreaks, which are not made public. They were a cluster of Listeria monocytogenes linked to fish products, an outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis from bovine ground meat, a cluster of Listeria infections because of soft cheese, Salmonella Mbandaka and Salmonella Havana infections linked to sesame-based products and a cluster of Listeria cases linked to fish products.

A total of 281 RASFF notifications related to e-commerce as the main way of trade were reported by member countries. Half of all requests for products traded online concerned dietetic foods, food supplements and fortified food.

Fraud stats
Suspicions of fraud have been raised in 407 cases compared to 349 in 2020. As in 2020, fish and fish products was the second category involved after illegal movement of pets. Problems included undeclared added water in frozen pangasius fillets and shrimp and honey adulterated with sugar.

Notifications involved suspected illegal treatment of tuna with carbon monoxide, nitrates and nitrites; abuse of additives like ascorbic and citric acid and labeling deficiencies. An outbreak was reported with 12 people poisoned after eating tuna illegally treated with a high dose of nitrites.

Fats and oils were the third most reported category with problems relating to marketing standards and to olive or virgin olive oil sold as extra virgin olive oil. Meat and meat products other than poultry reports concerned forged documentation, illegal trading or exceedance of water.

Another issue was the falsification of accompanying documents of meat or fishery products such as invoices, certifications and Common Health Entry Documents to tamper with information on traceability. This often involved unauthorized establishments.

Some exchanges covered the sale of unapproved substances, such as 2,4-Dinitrophenol (DNP), a chemical used as a rapid weight loss supplement. It can be fatal for humans and is mainly sold online.

Focus on fraud involving horses
Belgium, France and Germany got the most use of the AAC system for suspicions of fraud, followed by Italy and Slovenia. In other countries, the tool is not yet always used to combat food fraud. Almost 70 percent of the requests concerned goods coming from the EU and 30 percent from outside Europe.

The number of requests regarding horses was steady at 18 and related to falsified documents, mainly passports. With such forgery, horses that are not fit for human consumption or for which traceability is altered, could unlawfully be brought into the food chain.

During 2020 and 2021, several EU countries have tried to combat the illegal introduction of horses into the food chain. Horses excluded from this chain no longer have any market value at the end of their life. Traffickers have started falsifying passports of these horses to reintroduce them into the food chain.

The problem shifted from one country to another depending on the controls carried out. As a result, in countries with numerous checks, member states have seen a reduction in the number of horses killed, and a shift in slaughtering to other countries. Several hundred falsified passports were discovered and seized by various agencies.

Criminal organizations have been identified in some countries. The phenomenon is not eliminated, because not all countries have participated in the action, but it has been stopped in many places. It also highlighted some traders are trying to introduce into the food chain equines that are sick or have received unauthorized drug treatments, said officials.

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