'Don't panic' about safety testing law, experts advise

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food Food safety Hygiene

New regulations on microbiological safety will not result in
increased testing procedures for most companies, industry experts

"Don't panic,"​ advises Kaarin Goodburn, the managing director of the UK's Chilled Food Association.

Goodburn, who was involved in providing advice during the European Commision's drafting of the legislation, said she was concerned that some companies might be fooled into thinking the regulation would increase the level of food safety testing they would have to do.

Testing and sampling can be costly and time consuming procedures for companies. Some companies offering testing services have been trying to take advantage of the situation, Goodburn claimed.

Most companies who already apply international food safety standards, known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), will not have to increase their testing, she said. Using HACCP has been a requirement since 1989 for membership in the Chilled Food Association, which represents about 90 per cent of the UK industry when measured by volume and value.

HACCP is a systematic method used in the industry to identify potential food safety hazards, so that key actions, known as Critical Control Points (CCP's), can be taken to reduce or eliminate the risk of the hazards being realised throughout production and distribution processes.

"The regulations are about implementing HACCP and using the criteria given within HACCP,"​ Goodburn told FoodProductionDaily.com in an interview. "They are not about mandatory requirements on testing."

She was speaking about the Microbiological Criteria for Foodstuffs regulation, which seeks to harmonise the industry's procedures for detecting the presence of dangerous bacteria. It is being introduced as part of the bloc's new food hygiene regulations, which also come into effect on 1 January.

The regulation can serve as a due diligence defence for food companies, one that will apply if food safety problems stem from a particular plant. Companies that have been following the HACCP principles may be able to use the criteria as a defence if they have not been lax in their safety procedures, Goodburn said.

Under HACCP most food businesses will be able to set sampling and testing plans, as part of their risk-based food safety management procedures that are proportionate to the nature and size of their business. The regulation allows food business operators to use the criteria within their own controls, and allows alternative indicators to be monitored to ensure the criteria are being met.

Maija Hatakka, a European Commission food scientist who helped prepare the legislation, told FoodProductionDaily.com that the regulation would require food business operators to assess the risks associated with their products.

Based on the risks, they would have to assess whether there is a need for sampling and testing on a case-by-case basis, she said.

Most existing EU microbiological criteria remain unchanged under the new regulation. Some no longer exist and new standards have been established in other areas, such as in the case of pre-cut fruit and vegetables, infant formula, Salmonella on some meat carcasses and Listeria monocytogenes in some ready to eat products.

The new regulation will apply to all food business operators involved in the production, distribution, handling and supply of foodstuffs.

Food business operators would be required to ensure that foodstuffs comply with the relevant microbiological criteria. To comply with the regulation fully, they must also take the given action if a product is found to fail any of the criteria.

The regulation sets a fixed sampling frequency only in the case of certain products, such as carcases, minced meat, meat preparations and mechanically separated meat. In such cases food operators will be required to perform a minimum of one test per week. The testing is an attempt to reduce Salmonella in the food chain.

Food business operators will have to follow the sampling frequencies unless they can demonstrate their processes have resulted in reducing Salmonella over the long term. They may also be able to demonstrate that they have a Salmonella control programme is in place.

"In such cases the sampling frequency can be reduced,"​ Hatakka said. "In other cases food businesses have to decide the sampling frequencies on risk basis. However, it is recommended to follow the sampling plans set down in the regulation as a minimum, which is in major cases five sample units."

The Microbiological Criteria legislation sets down two types of criteria for food companies, one relating to internal manufacturing processes, the other to products placed on the market.

The process hygiene criterion applies during manufacturing, but not to products placed on the market. The directive outlines internal checks companies should have in place during production once they have assessed the risk of bacterial contamination of their processes.

If the standard is not met, regulators may require the company to improve production hygiene and possibly how they select raw materials.

The food safety criterion defines the safety of a product or a batch and essentially deals with the recall process for contaminated foods. If the standard is not met, then food companies must withdraw the product from the market.

The Microbiological Criteria legislation is an addition to the the three new food hygiene regulations coming into force on 1 January.

In July 2000, the European Commission published a package of five measures to update and consolidate the seventeen existing hygiene directives. The package was intended to introduce consistency and clarity throughout the food production chain from "farm to fork". After nearly four years of negotiations, the texts were adopted on 29 April 2004.

Recent trends in global food production, processing, distribution and preparation are creating an increasing demand for food safety research in order to ensure a safer global food supply, the Commission stated in explaining the drive behind the rules.

Under the law food business operators will be required to adopt specific HACCP hygiene measures, including compliance with microbiological criteria for foodstuffs and procedures necessary to meet the targets set by the regulations. They will also have to comply with temperature control requirements, maintenance of the cold chain and with sampling and analysis procedures.

Individual country regulators will be responsible under a directive for audits of companies to check whether they are following good hygiene practices and are keeping records of their processes.

The Commission's target is to reduce the number of salmonella and listeria cases in human. In the EU and Norway about 150,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported each year. Among foodborne illnesses salmonella is the most common cause of death.

Listeriosis is a significant public health concern as a result of its clinical severity. Although the foodborne disease is relatively rare it has a high mortality rate of up to 30 per cent. Listeriosis have been predominantly associated with eating ready-to-eat foods.

A total of 1,048 cases of listeriosis were reported in the EU and Norway in 2003.

The regulation aims to harmonise the microbiological criteria used in the EU. However several member states will continue to maintain some additional national criteria.

The European Commission says it is in discussions with those members in a bid to further harmonise the standards across the bloc.

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