The system in Egypt to control microbiological risks in food of non-animal origin for export to the European Union is in a phase of transition and reform, according to a report.
An audit led by DG SANTE assessed official control systems in production and processing of food of non-animal origin (FNAO) with a focus on fresh or frozen soft fruits and herbs and spices.
It found these controls can ensure strawberries, herbs and spices are produced under conditions which meet the EU’s general hygiene provisions for primary production and processing.
The audit, from late January to early February this year, included exporting firms for strawberries, herbs and spices, one service provider for disinfection of herbs and spices and four farms producing such products.
Increasing role for NFSA
The National Food Safety Authority (NFSA) in Egypt was established in 2017 and at the time of the audit had 140 staff of which eight were veterinarians. The Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, Central Administration for Plant Quarantine (CAPQ) and Ministry of Health and Population (MOHP) were agencies responsible for areas covered by the audit.
The CAPQ has 1,000 staff involved in food controls and MOHP has 3,000 staff part of official controls of food across Egypt, of which 2,000 are food inspectors in charge of looking at establishments. NFSA has started to take over official control duties of MOHP and CAPQ on food safety issues. In 2018, 21,000 food sites were temporarily suspended by the MOHP.
Egypt was subjected to the visit due to a past large outbreak in the EU linked to consumption of food of non-animal origin and the volume of imports from the country. Egyptian data shows exports of fresh and dried herbs and spices to the EU was almost 12,900 tons in 2018 compared to 10,266 tons and 11,660 in the two previous years.
Exports of strawberries was more than 103,300 tons for fresh and 57,500 for frozen ones in 2018. The previous year had seen 65,280 tons of fresh and 32,000 tons of frozen strawberries exported to the EU.
An outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) O104:H4 occurred in Germany in 2011 linked to fenugreek seeds from Egypt. About 4,000 were involved in 16 countries and more than 56 people died.
A written question in April this year from Giancarlo Scottà, a member of the European Parliament, to the European Commission questioned the lack of analytical findings on the presence of E. coli in the seeds and said it was not possible to prove they were already contaminated when they left Egypt.
In response, Vytenis Andriukaitis, the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said the number of infections kept increasing until the source was found and measures taken.
“Trace back investigations of the outbreak supported the hypothesis that the outbreak was indeed linked to fenugreek seeds from Egypt used for sprouting, which became contaminated with STEC O104:H4. The fact that the number of new human cases suddenly dropped illustrates that the source had effectively been identified.”
Issues found during site visits
The audit found frequency of inspection for exporting firms was at least monthly or every 15 tons during sampling before issuing the health certificate for export.
Major parameters analyzed at strawberry farms were E. coli, Salmonella spp, Hepatitis A and Norovirus. Producers took one to three samples per plot and season for analysis on the same parameters in accredited labs and were certified by approved control and certification bodies.
Some aspects regarding direct contamination of food were missed by inspectors such as condensation water dropping on the produce from the dirty ceiling and chiller. However, action was taken and contaminated produce destroyed. Poor hygienic conditions and direct food contamination were observed in two facilities. One was suspended from exports after an inspection.
The audit team visited one farm producing herbs and spices. Such farms were not subject to official controls at the time of the visit. The visit included three processors of herbs and spices. All these sites did microbiological testing of the raw material and final produce. Samples were analyzed for Salmonella spp., Staphylococcus aureus, Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli, Norovirus and Hepatitis A.
One of the sites was BRC certified but a major deficiency was found by the audit team around monitoring of the metal detector, one of the main critical control points. Records and calibration probes were not available on site. Also, bags of final product were put directly on the floor.
There were nine Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) notifications in 2017 and 2018 regarding microbiological contamination of produce covered by the audit. Egyptian exporters refuse any responsibility for contamination related to consignments after being imported into the EU.
Evidence about follow-up actions regarding the RASFF notifications was not provided. Penalty for the first notification is an official warning notice, for the second related to the same company is withdrawal from the list of exporters for one year and, if there are two more notifications related to the same firm, it could be prevented from exporting.