Food & DrinkBelgium reports large rise in foodborne illness outbreaks in...

Belgium reports large rise in foodborne illness outbreaks in 2021

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An additional 200 outbreaks were recorded in Belgium in 2021 versus the year before, according to the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC).

There was a significant increase in the number of food poisoning outbreaks from 333 in 2020 to 547 in 2021. The number of people affected in them went from 1,262 with 27 hospitalizations and two deaths to 2,070 sick, 78 hospitalizations but no deaths in 2021.

FASFC, also known as AFSCA and FAVV, said it was important to remember 2020 was an exceptional year because of the closure of many food businesses caused by COVID-19 related restrictions.

Figures for the past year are still slightly lower than 2019, when 571 outbreaks were recorded and 2,457 people were affected.

The agent was unknown in 512 outbreaks with almost 1,700 illnesses in 2021, according to data from Sciensano, the national public health institute.

Outbreak breakdown

Seven Salmonella outbreaks sickened 97 people with 25 hospitalized. Campylobacter caused six and 33 illnesses. Five norovirus outbreaks affected 125 people and five Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) outbreaks sickened 33 people with 30 hospitalized.

Twenty people were sick in four Bacillus cereus outbreaks, 10 in two Clostridium perfringens outbreaks and one Yersinia enterocolitica outbreak had 26 cases.

There was also an increase in cases of listeriosis, salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis, compared to 2020.

The FASFC contact point received almost 4,000 complaints in 2021. A quarter were related to possible food poisoning after eating out or from a product they had bought. Consumers were also concerned about hygiene and methods of manufacturing and storing food.

The annual report reveals many product recalls were because of the presence of ethylene oxide and there was an increase in controls because of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.

Food companies recalled or issued a warning for 492 products and 210 related to ethylene oxide.

Almost 133,000 consignments, including more than 6,000 from the UK, were checked at Belgian border control posts and more than 98 percent of them were admitted to the European market.

Checks on British products showed that 95 percent of shipments complied with EU legislation. In 2021, FASFC issued 950 health certificates for exports of animals and live products and 5,250 phytosanitary certificates for plants and plant products destined for the UK.

Food fraud investigations

In 2021, an investigation unit of FASFC (UNE) recorded 953 reports of potential fraud compared to 1,419 in 2020.

UNE received 82 reports and sent 69 notifications as part of the EU’s food fraud network.

One operation looked at food supplements sold online and involved checking posted items. A total of 118 suspect dietary supplements were analyzed and 90 contained illicit substances.

UNE also took part in an investigation related to horses with Interpol and Europol as part of Operation Opson. Overall, 21 controls were undertaken and 190 horses and 237 passports checked.

This uncovered 37 falsified horse passports with three legal and 15 administrative files opened. A total of 33 samples were also taken from slaughterhouses to check the use of veterinary drugs in the horsemeat industry.

In the previous Opson, import controls resulted in the seizure of 4 tons of foodstuffs, mainly because the companies involved were not registered with FASFC or the animal products came from countries where imports are prohibited.

Another case involved France with Belgian Conference pears sold as French, leading to a loss of traceability. Conference pears of French origin are sold at a higher price. Thanks to the investigation in Belgium, the fraud could be demonstrated.

The illegal sale of fish products without inspection or sorting was another focus. As there is no labeling or documentation on fishing quotas, traceability is not guaranteed. During a day of action, six boats were checked and four vessels were involved in illegal sales. Two merchants were caught buying these products.

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