Opinion

This year has been dominated by the global coronavirus pandemic but it also held many other surprises such as contaminated beer in Brazil, pesticide residues in seeds from India, and approval of cell-based meat in Singapore.

As you can imagine, trying to condense 52 weeks’ worth of articles into 10 highlights means many things don’t make the cut. Some of these include a botulism outbreak in Vietnam from pate, food poisoning in Hong Kong from sandwiches, Lloyd Register Foundation’s World Risk Poll, findings from the 2019 Ugandan food aid outbreak, and an outbreak of tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) linked to raw milk goat cheese in France. Below is what did make the list:

1) Brazilian beer contamination

Cervejaria Backer was at the center of beer contamination in Brazil. Ten people died and 42 suspected cases had symptoms including blindness and facial paralysis. People were poisoned by diethylene glycol from drinking beer from the brewery. The firm has insisted it did not use this substance but did use mono ethylene glycol.

A police investigation revealed it was an accident caused by a manufacturing defect in a tank installed in September 2019 but the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Supply have suggested contamination had occurred since January 2019. All the legal aspects of the incident have yet to play out so this is one to keep an eye on in 2021.

2) Suspicious mailing of seeds from China

People across the world received packages of seeds that appeared to be mainly from China.

While all has gone quiet since September, seed packets were a mix of ornamental, fruit and vegetable, herb, and weed species.

Reports were received from the United States, Canada, India, Israel, Poland, Japan, Ireland, Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom, and France throughout the year.

It was thought to be an internet “brushing scam,” where sellers send unsolicited items to unsuspecting consumers and they post false reviews to boost sales.

3) Ethylene oxide in sesame seeds from India

Product recalls in Europe continue to flow from this incident and have reached 100s if not 1,000s.

The EU has tightened checks on sesame seeds from India. Ethylene oxide was used to stop the growth of Salmonella during the storage of some seeds in India. It is a substance considered to be genotoxic and carcinogenic. Tests have found residues at levels exceeding more than 1,000 times the maximum limit of 0.05 milligrams per kilogram set by regulation. Belgium first raised the alert in September. At least a 250-ton shipment of the seeds and five Indian producers are involved.

4) Second World Food Safety Day

The second World Food Safety Day in June was pushed online because of the pandemic but included 100 activities, events, and campaigns held in more than 60 countries. The annual event is supported by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Experts in the Asia-Pacific region held a webinar, the Pan American Center for Foot-and-Mouth Disease and Veterinary Public Health and Caribbean Public Health Agency shared their perspectives while a Facebook live session was set up by WHO and FAO. The WHO’s regional director for Africa and the Regional Office for Europe offered different geographical opinions and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) hosted a Twitter Q&A.

Also in June, food safety was the theme of World Accreditation Day, run by the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) and International Accreditation Forum (IAF).

5) Covid-19 EU action

If you ever needed proof that people will take advantage of a crisis look no further than the latest co-ordinated action in Europe.

The number of online advertisements found featuring food claiming to prevent or cure coronavirus in Europe has passed 600 since the operation began in April. Italy has reported the most followed by Germany. It runs until spring 2021 so it remains to be seen how many more will be recorded. Dietetic foods, supplements, and fortified foods are the main product category. The evidence so far does not support claims that any food or food supplement protects against COVID-19.

6) Tiger Brands sold Enterprise Foods

There has not been much public progress on the class action lawsuit side of things since the 2017 and 2018 Listeria outbreak in South Africa. But this year, Tiger Brands sold its processed meats division, which includes Enterprise Foods, the unit that produced the implicated meat product.

Silver Blade Abattoir, a subsidiary of Country Bird Holdings, acquired the meat processing businesses at Germiston, Polokwane, and Pretoria. It appears the brand Enterprise will stay but the Enterprise Foods business unit name will change. The transaction does not impact the class action lawsuit.

The outbreak included 1,065 confirmed patients and 218 deaths and was traced to a ready-to-eat processed meat product called polony made by Enterprise Foods in Polokwane.

7) Public Health England axed

One of the fallouts of the pandemic has been that Public Health England (PHE) was axed in August. Some criticized the agency during the COVID-19 outbreak and others said it was being used as a scapegoat by the government. From my view trying to get information on the foodborne side, the people at PHE are up there with the best in the world but there certainly could be more communication and transparency.

The agency is responsible for public health in England but it is not clear where the food and pathogen-related activities will fall in the new set-up. But, welcome the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP). The transition will be complete in spring 2021.

8) Salmonella outbreaks in the UK

Salmonella dominated the outbreaks we know about in the United Kingdom in 2020. More than 100 Salmonella Typhimurium infections in the UK were linked to Brazil nuts from Bolivia while France, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Canada also had a handful of cases.

Salmonella Enteritidis infections linked to frozen poultry products led to about 400 people falling sick in the UK, patients in Ireland and the outbreak is also being investigated by EFSA and ECDC. We should hear more about this in late January.

Finally, about 40 cases of Salmonella Enteritidis have been linked to British Lion Eggs. This code of practice has improved the situation with eggs laid by vaccinated hens but these illnesses go to show it can still happen.

9) FSA updates foodborne disease figures

The Food Standards Agency did a lot of work on foodborne diseases in 2020 including publishing updated figures. The FSA estimates there are about 2.4 million cases of foodborne illness every year in the UK. This is up from a 2009 estimate of one million. The rise was put down to better estimations rather than more people getting sick.

In other work, the agency said it was not possible to accurately compare disease rates between countries. Cost of illness estimates revealed the total burden from foodborne illness was about £9 billion ($11.2 billion) in 2018 in the UK.

10) Singapore approves lab-grown meat

Singapore became the first country to approve sales of cell-based meat. The honor went to the U.S. company Eat Just. Cell-based meat is meat tissue produced without animal slaughter. The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) gave the company approval to sell its lab-grown chicken in the country and it has already made its debut at a restaurant. Now the focus shifts to which country will be next and will this prompt a flood or a trickle of approvals for this product category from other countries?

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