After the Buitoni and Kinder recalls, the means of control in question
The control system for food production sites is largely based on internal company procedures, with the authorities intervening more after reports, as was the case in the scandal of frozen pizzas from the Buitoni brand, contaminated with the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. . coli). In this case, the range of Fraîch’Up pizzas is the subject of an investigation after fifty cases of contamination with E. coli bacteria in France, and two possibly related deaths. This week, a second range, called Bella Napoli, was the subject of a complaint, but the authorities said they concluded that there was no contamination. A third range, “Stone oven”, produced in the same factory as the Fraîch’Up, is questioned by a victims’ lawyer, without confirmation from the investigators at this stage.
Separately, Kinder products made in a Belgian factory of the Ferrero group are suspected of having caused around 150 cases of salmonellosis in nine countries in Europe, mainly children under ten, with no deaths.
In France as in Europe, it is the agri-food companies that have “the obligation to carry out self-checks to ensure that they only market products that are not dangerous to health”explained Karine Jacquemart, director general of the NGO Foodwatch. “Industrialists, as soon as they spot the slightest suspicion, must inform the authorities, but it happened the other way around and that is what should alert us today”, abounds Ingrid Kragl, of Foodwatch.
In February 2019, the Court of Auditors in France had regretted that “shortcomings remain at all stages of the food safety control chain, from the self-checks carried out by the companies to the publication of the results of the inspections”.
How is it controlled?
“It’s complicated to put consumer safety on the shoulders of a company that will be asked to seek maximum profit”, underlines Roland Girerd, general secretary of the Solidaires CCRF & SCL union, especially since the means administrations supposed to control these self-checks are dwindling. Fraud prevention inspectors (DGCCRF) can carry out checks without notifying the company in advance. But their workforce fell by nearly 30% between 2007 and 2020, from 3,656 to 2,673 agents. Unannounced checks remain possible, but “it takes time, staff, resources”, continues Roland Girerd, while the alerts received by the DGCCRF are increasing, from 1,169 in 2016 to 1,900 in 2020.
What means of control?
More generally, the personnel carrying out health checks on food are attached to the Ministry of Agriculture (DGAL), the Ministry of the Economy (DGCCRF) and the Ministry of Health. But their human resources “do not make it possible to cover, by a first level control, a significant part of the establishments of certain sectors”noted the Court of Auditors in 2019. The Court cited the case of food distribution and catering, estimating that the coverage rate of this sector “reached by the control services” was 9% for the DGAL and 4% for the DGCCRF.
The DGCCRF “acts on report”explained a spokesperson. “When someone has symptoms and demonstrates that there is a possible infection, the epidemiological authorities (the Regional Health Agencies or Public Health France) carry out analyzes retracing the diet of the previous days”.
When several cases “allows to say that the contamination can relate to a type of product, further investigations in the manufacturing plant take place and the product can be withdrawn from sale if it is thought that it is necessary”he continued.
European alert system
The European Union has an international alert mechanism (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed), triggered in particular during the ethylene oxide contamination crisis, which since November 2020 has led to the withdrawal of many products. Foodwatch welcomed the responsiveness of the authorities on the Buitoni investigation but wondered about the delay concerning Kinder eggs. The European alert had been given on March 25, but the national authorities did not begin to communicate until the beginning of April.