The United Kingdom leaving the European Union has resulted in reduced communication between UK and EU food networks, according to a new report.

The annual report covers work of the UK’s national reference laboratory (NRL) for food microbiology between April 2021 and March 2022.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) provides this service for the Food Standards Agency (FSA) for Listeria monocytogenes, coagulase-positive staphylococci, E. coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella and antimicrobial resistance.

Reduced information sharing

The NRL has had less contact with the European Union Reference Laboratories (EURLs) after the UK left the EU. Presentations from the Listeria EURL meeting are on restricted access webpages, which the NRL can no longer access.

UKHSA is no longer part of the EURL Listeria challenge testing working groups and could not attend most of the EURL annual workshops and training. Participation in the whole genome sequencing EURL has significantly reduced or halted.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic and leaving the EU, there has been a downward trend in reporting potential EU outbreaks to the UK NRL. In the reporting period, only one alert from the Salmonella EURL and one from the Listeria EURL were received. The UK NRL also requested information from the EURLs on sources of particular strains to help domestic incidents.

UKHSA received three outbreak alerts from the E. coli EURL. Two from the United States and one from Ireland. This was lower than in previous years, possibly due to the pandemic. The Salmonella EURL passed on an alert concerning outbreaks in the United States and Canada from Salmonella in onions.

The UK participated in the One Health laboratory capacity survey, which attempted to benchmark human, veterinary, clinical diagnostic, food, and feed microbiology systems across Europe. Results have not yet been published.

UKHSA signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in December 2021 to help reopen communication and shared learning on public health threats through testing, surveillance and preparedness.

The EU has allowed the UK to participate in EURL proficiency tests. This provides the only route to get direct comparison with EU NRLs and ensure the UK NRL’s diagnostic and operating standards are comparable to the EU’s, which is important to facilitate trade in and outside the EU, according to the report.

Domestic issues

After leaving Europe, the UK planned to increase sampling of imported produce, which involved the NRL.

An online meeting in September held by UKHSA included presentations from FSA, the 2019 EU One Health report, and microbiology of raw milk and beef mince. More than 35 delegates attended from 11 official laboratories (OLs), UKHSA’s Gastrointestinal Bacteria Reference Unit (GBRU) and the Food and Environmental Proficiency Testing Unit (FEPTU), FSA and FSS, the Northern Ireland Public Health Laboratory, Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and Campden BRI.

Since leaving the EU, Campden BRI has been unable to attend EURL working group meetings and participate in EURL challenge proficiency tests.

The NRL dealt with a number of requests including an inquiry as to whether indicator E.coli could be further characterized from raw pet food, a question on detection of Salmonella Nottingham in seafood, an FSA query about Listeria testing in Enoki mushrooms and another about disinfectant use at border control posts.

Planned activities from April 2022 to March 2023 include publishing audit results on official laboratory capabilities and requirements, working with the FSA on testing post-EU exit and liaising with CEFAS on E. coli and Salmonella in shellfish.

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