Food

Outbreaks down but recalls up for Belgium in 2020

More than 330 outbreaks affected more than 1,200 people in Belgium in 2020, according to the food agency’s annual report.

The 333 outbreaks sickened 1,262 people with 27 needing hospital treatment. Two elderly people died, one due to Salmonella and the other Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) infection, but a link to food could not be confirmed.

Outbreaks were down from 571 in 2019 with 2,457 people sick and 28 hospitalized. The Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) said the impact of coronavirus measures such as closure of schools and more working from home plus the shutdown of restaurants and canteens partly explains the decline.

Causes of outbreaks
The agent responsible was unknown for 317 outbreaks. Campylobacter caused three with 10 people sick and STEC three with 17 sick and 14 hospitalized, according to data from Sciensano, the Belgian Scientific Institute of Public Health.

Bacillus cereus was behind two events with 20 ill, histamine two with 12 affected and Salmonella two with 11 ill and six needing hospital treatment after eating meat and pork products.

One norovirus outbreak sickened 151 people linked to vegetables; honey was responsible for one Clostridium botulinum illness and the source was unknown for an outbreak of Clostridium perfringens with 21 sick.

Almost half of the outbreaks were linked to the HORECA, or hotel and catering sector. More than a quarter were linked to private households and 10 percent to takeaway and fast food.

FASFC recorded and handled 3,605 consumer complaints this past year. Most related to hygiene or food poisoning. After an increase in recent years, the number declined in 2020, mainly because of closure of the restaurant sector amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Recalls and fraud
Almost 400 product recall notices were published by FASFC in 2020, also known as AFSCA or FAVV, with 105 relating to sesame seeds produced in India and treated with ethylene oxide, which is not authorized for such use in Europe. This is up from 239 recalls and warnings in 2019.

In September 2020, a company alerted FASFC to the presence of the substance on a batch of sesame seeds. This issue has affected most of Europe with recalls ongoing as of this month.

In 2020, 3,777 reports were made by all member states of the European Union via the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) and 266 came from Belgium. There was an increase in notifications concerning products distributed on the Belgian market, mainly because of ethylene oxide.

The National Investigation Unit (UNE) recorded 1,419 fraud reports this past year compared to 712 in 2018 and 1,331 in 2019. In 2020, this included opening nearly 800 fraud investigations and taking 953 samples.

UNE was able to close 673 cases. Fifty involved home visits and searches with the police. The unit received 62 alerts and also sent 62 reports through a European notification system for food fraud called AAC-FF.

As part of a European Commission action plan focused on products claiming to protect against coronavirus or boost the immune system, Belgium handled 50 cases concerning illegal products or products with misleading claims.

In one operation, 73 samples of fresh and frozen tuna were taken from wholesale and retail businesses with 37 considered non-compliant. Problems were mostly found with frozen tuna and origin was mainly Vietnam but also Spain and the Netherlands.

Overall, 79 tons of tuna was judged non-compliant with 35 tons treated with carbon monoxide. Other issues were the addition of ascorbic acid and nitrate or nitrite.

Another action looked at sulfites in meat to promote the red color and mask spoilage. Initially, seven of 20 sites were found to be non-compliant due to use of the preservative. A second action found the use of sulfites in 18 of 30 sites visited.

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