Number of food product withdrawals in recent years
According to the data of Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira, the statistically recorded number of food product withdrawals was slightly higher in 2016 than in the previous year. The number of cases recorded as withdrawals was 131, which shows an increase of 18 percent over the previous year.
Data on withdrawals have been recorded more systematically since 2006. The recording of data has become somewhat more explicit over time, which means that the statistics of different years are not fully comparable. The latest adjustment made in the 2016 statistics is the inclusion of also all cases where the product concerned is no longer available on the Finnish market at the time the information reaches Finland, particularly cases reported through the international RASFF system. The total number of such cases was 25 during the year. It is important to take this into account when analysing the results. Due to the late arrival of the information, there was no time to remove the product (usually quickly perishable vegetables) from the market.
The number of food product withdrawals in recent years
In-house control - regulatory control - consumer control
The development of in-house control implemented by operators is reflected in more explicit internal guidelines for operation and also contributes to more systematic execution of withdrawals. The role of social media has continued to increase, which is why it is the goal of the businesses that the first information about product withdrawals should come from themselves. The obligation of rapid communication by operators is, indeed, laid down in legislation. Regulatory control has become more risk-based (food products previously found to be in violation with regulations are after that inspected more often), which is why the probability of withdrawals based on an import inspection increases. In addition, consumers are active in reporting product defects that they detect, although the number of withdrawal cases initiated by consumers has clearly decreased over the previous year.
The continuous development of the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed implemented in the EU also affects the number of notifications we receive. This number has increased from some 20 - 30 notifications in past years to the new record of last year; as many as 53 notifications concerned imported food products found to be in violation of regulations. Food products imported to Finland are inspected by the Customs, and 24 withdrawals were based on their inspections. This number is consistent with the established level of recent years.
Defects found in food products
There are many reasons for the long-term increase in the number of withdrawals. The growing interest in new culinary experiences can be seen in e.g. increased importation of various herbs and vegetables (through new distribution channels), which has resulted in more withdrawals due to plant protection or growth promoting products found in food products.
The influence of discrepancies previously found in the products and the effect of control projects are reflected as variations in the statistics; after a short-term peak, the number of non-conforming products decreases in one product group, only to increase in another group. This was evident in the high number of allergen cases in 2015. During the year 2016, more non-conformances than before were found in e.g. Chinese and Eastern-European cutlery and crockery products.
Various microbiological defects (salmonella, listeria and other bacteria, and moulds) constituted the most common group causing withdrawals (24% of cases). It is noteworthy that salmonella still was not found in meat of domestic origin. Instead, salmonella was detected in four cases of meat and in four cases of spice plants imported from some other country.
A major part of microbiological defects were defects of such nature related to the quality of the food product that they did not pose any significant health risk to the consumer. In some cases, however, the reason for the withdrawal was a health hazard caused by a microbial pathogen.
Defects in chemical composition
In 2016, the second highest number of withdrawals concerned a group that comprises defects related to use of plant protection and growth promoting products, as well asadditives, andmould toxins in food products.
In some cases the permitted levels were exceeded, while other cases concerned the use of a completely unauthorised product. Although some plant protection products are authorised for use in farming in the EU, it is possible that maximum levels have been specified for them regarding imported products.
In this group the number of withdrawals has varied in the last four years between 17 and 32 annual cases. Last year there were 30 cases. In particular, excessive levels of aflatoxins and ochratoxins were found in figs, raisins and pistachio nuts. The 16 withdrawals caused by plant protection and growth promoting products concerned several (12) different products, primarily fruit and spice herbs.
Allergen errors refer to cases where the product contains an ingredient that causes allergy to some consumers, but the ingredient is not indicated in labelling. The error can be due to a deficient or outdated list of ingredients, or contamination by the allergen at some point of production. These errors have accounted for between ten and thirty cases a year since 2013, with 23 cases recorded last year.
They consisted of ten different allergens in the most varying products during the year. Almost as many cases were initiated on the basis of the RASFF system, consumer feedback and the in-house control of operators.
Foreign objects and contact material errors
Other causes resulting in withdrawals every year include various foreign objects (often pieces of plastic or metal originating from production or packing equipment), incorrect food contact materials (resulting in contaminants being dissolved into the food product), as well as maggots, beetles, etc. Such particles that should not be contained in the food product or substances causing taste or smell defects were found in 23 cases. This is more than double the number of the previous year. The most probable explanation for this development is the targeting of control activities at kitchen supplies imported from China and Eastern Europe.
Withdrawals can be found on Internet
A news release is posted on Evira's website (http://www.evira.fi/portal/fi/elintarvikkeet/takaisinvedot/arkisto/) of the majority of withdrawals. News releases for consumers are usually not published about catering products, as they are food products used in mass catering and not directly available to consumers. The withdrawals of these products are implemented effectively through internal communication and other control measures within the distribution chain. Catering products have accounted for 10 - 15 percent of all withdrawals in the 2010s, last year their number was clearly lower.
The responsibility for informing consumers about withdrawn products primarily rests with the company that implements the withdrawal. Announcements in printed newspapers and their online versions have been considered to provide a good tool to reach a wide consumer base. Apart from newspaper announcements, companies often also use their own websites and the social media for communication purposes.
Report suspicions to municipal health inspectors
Consumers who suspect a food product of being harmful to health or unsuitable for human consumption should primarily contact the food control authorities of their own municipality. Contact information can be found at https://www.evira.fi/en/foodstuff/feedback-on-food/. In urgent cases, the store in which the product was purchased should also be informed about the product defect.