Food safety incidents

During the second quarter of 2020, the INFOSAN Secretariat has been involved in 29 food safety incidents with 59 WHO Member States and two territories of WHO Member States. There were 13 biological hazard incidents (Salmonella [5], Listeria monocytogenes [3],
Clostridium botulinum [2], Vibrio cholerae [1], and two involving an unspecified biological hazard), six with a chemical hazard (methanol [3], histamine [2] and patulin [1]), five involving an undeclared allergen (cashew and pistachio
[1], sesame [1], wheat (1),  mustard [1] and peanuts [1]), three including a physical hazard (glass [3]), and two with unspecified hazards.  

The food categories most commonly involved in the 29 incidents during the second quarter of 2020 were fish and other seafood (5), alcoholic beverages (3), meat and meat products (3), composite food (3), fruit and fruit products (3), milk and dairy products
(3), cereals and cereal-based products (2), food for infants and small children (1), herbs, spiced and condiments (1), nuts and oilseeds (1), products for special nutritional use (1), snacks, desserts and other products (1), vegetable and vegetable
products (1), and legumes and pulses (1).

During such international food safety incidents, the INFOSAN Secretariat relies on the swift action of national INFOSAN Emergency Contact Points to respond to requests for information. Rapid sharing of information through INFOSAN enables members to implement
appropriate risk management measures to prevent illness.

Geographic scope

Food safety incidents in this quarter involved countries from all WHO regions: Europe (34), followed by Western Pacific (11), Americas (6), Africa (5), South-East Asia (2), and finally Eastern Mediterranean (2).

Multi-country outbreak of Listeriosis linked to enoki mushrooms imported from the Republic of Korea

During the second quarter of the year, the INFOSAN Secretariat continued following up on this food safety incident following the reports of cases of listeriosis linked to the consumption of enoki mushrooms from the Republic of Korea (RoK) in the United States of America (USA) (n=36), and in Canada (n=6) which are related by whole genome sequencing (WGS) to the cluster of cases in the USA. Moreover, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) pursued their food safety investigation and collected additional enoki mushroom samples in which Listeria monocytogenes was detected. These findings subsequently triggered the recall of the implicated products in Canada in March 2020. The L. monocytogenes isolates from these samples were also genetically associated with the cluster of cases.

In April 2020, the INFOSAN Secretariat was made aware of six listeriosis cases in Australia, notified between October 2017 and March 2020. The cases had been linked through phylogenetic analysis of WGS to the USA outbreak of listeriosis which was related to the consumption of enoki mushrooms imported from the Republic of Korea (the USA cases were reported between 2016 and 2019). Investigations in Australia identified enoki mushrooms imported from a single Korean supplier, which were also identified as having been distributed to the USA. These were confirmed to be contaminated with the outbreak sequence of Listeria monocytogenes through phylogenetic analysis. As a result, a recall of the implicated enoki mushrooms was implemented in Australia on 10 April 2020. Australia also reminded consumers of the risks of listeriosis and more specifically advised that enoki mushrooms should be cooked before consumption. 

Through engagement with the INFOSAN Emergency Contact Point (ECP) in RoK, the INFOSAN Secretariat was made aware of the results of the local investigations regarding the international distribution of the implicated enoki mushrooms. The ECP in RoK confirmed that implicated enoki mushrooms were distributed by a single exporter to Australia, Canada, Hong Kong SAR (China), Indonesia, Myanmar, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Singapore and the United States of America. A series of actions to mitigate the risk were implemented by authorities in RoK, such as food safety education to farmers and the inclusion of a notice on the package of enoki mushrooms to alert consumers of the need to cook the products before consumption.

The INFOSAN Secretariat notified the ECPs in recipient countries of the distribution of the implicated enoki mushrooms and referred them to the WGS details that had been previously shared on the INFOSAN Community Website to assist them in the identification of related clinical or food isolates that may have been previously identified. Besides the cases reported in Australia (n=5), Canada (n=6) and the USA (n=36), French authorities confirmed that five isolates from enoki mushrooms from RoK collected in 2017 and distributed via the Netherlands, shared the same core genome multilocus sequence typing (cgMLST).

No additional illnesses linked to the consumption of the implicated mushrooms were reported to the INFOSAN Secretariat.

Methanol poisoning outbreaks linked to the consumption of adulterated alcoholic beverages

Outbreaks of methanol poisoning often occur when methanol is used to adulterate illegally produced alcoholic beverages. In the second quarter of 2020, the INFOSAN Secretariat was made aware of three such outbreaks in Mexico, Dominican Republic and Cambodia. While the events appear to be localized and not linked to one another in terms of the adulterated products, they highlight a common issue whereby fraudsters may be taking advantage of opportunities where legal alcohol sales have been restricted in order to boost their own sales. Such opportunities appear to be occurring more frequently during the COVID-19 pandemic where alcohol sales have been reduced or restricted in some jurisdictions.

In May and June 2020, more than 100 deaths in Mexico were linked to the consumption of fraudulent alcoholic beverages adulterated with methanol. The INFOSAN Secretariat engaged with the ECP in Mexico and was informed that the implicated alcoholic beverages were not distributed internationally. Investigations are ongoing to identify further fraudulent alcoholic beverages potentially linked to the outbreak.

In addition, the ECP in Dominican Republic notified the INFOSAN Secretariat of an outbreak of methanol poisoning in the country in June linked to the consumption of adulterated alcoholic beverages. It was reported that 215 fatalities and 340 cases of methanol poisoning were registered in Dominican Republic.

The authorities in the Dominican Republic carried out an operation in coordination with the Office of the Attorney General for Crimes and Offenses against Health, the General Directorate of Drugs, Food, and Health Products, the National Police, and the Provincial Health Directorate of Santiago. As a result, three people have been arrested within the facilities of the clandestine factories and 2,864 bottles were confiscated. More details can be found in the press release from the Ministry of Public Health of the Dominican Republic.

Also in June 2020, the INFOSAN Secretariat was informed of an outbreak of methanol poisoning in Cambodia, suspected to be linked to the consumption of wine. A total of 43 cases and 7 deaths have been reported in relation to the outbreak. The INFOSAN Secretariat has contacted the INFOSAN Emergency Contact Point in Cambodia to seek information on possible international distribution of the affected products. Investigations are ongoing.

News & activities

Food Sector and the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 and the measures taken to mitigate the global impact of the pandemic have disrupted food production and food supply chains worldwide. However, ensuring continuous and safe food supply is a critical issue for the health of all people, everywhere. Two FAO/WHO guidance documents have been developed in collaboration with the INFOSAN Secretariat and published in April 2020. These are titled, COVID-19 and Food Safety: Guidance for competent authorities responsible for national food safety control systems, and COVID-19 and food safety: guidance for food businesses. These documents provide advice and recommendations for national food safety authorities to optimize food control functions and prioritize critical services that preserve the integrity of food safety systems and also highlight additional measures that food businesses need to take so that the integrity of the food chain is maintained, and adequate and safe food supplies are available for consumers. The INFOSAN Secretariat has been working with partners to support network members during the COVID-19 pandemic and has delivered multiple webinars in different languages to discuss the recommendations contained within these guidance documents.

Commemoration of the second World Food Safety Day

On 7 June 2020, the second World Food Safety Day highlighted the theme, ‘Food Safety is Everyone’s Business’. This year, a presentation to describe what everyone can do to ensure Safe Food in Markets was jointly prepared by FAO and WHO. The INFOSAN Secretariat delivered this presentation during three webinars in English, French and Spanish to discuss the topic with INFOSAN Members and the sessions were attended by more than 250 participants.

The INFOSAN Secretariat also encouraged members to commemorate this World Food Safety Day and shared available materials prepared by FAO/WHO for the date, along with a list of online activities in which to participate. Further details on how countries celebrated this day are available on the World Food Safety Day website.

INFOSAN Working Group

Following input from several INFOSAN members on the need to maintain a working group with the members that are most often involved in food safety incidents communicated through INFOSAN, and in line with the INFOSAN Strategic Plan 2020-2025, the INFOSAN Secretariat set out a plan to host a series of working groups with these most frequently engaged members. The INFOSAN Working Group (WG) aims to increase the active participation of members, to share common ideas and approaches to better participate in the network and to offer a resource to support countries (e.g. buddying system, etc.)

The first meeting of the WG was held online in two sessions on 28 May and 12 June to accommodate different time zone across regions. The first WG identified eleven themes which are critical for the entire network and agreed to create clear and tangible outputs which at a later stage should be shared with the entire INFOSAN network.


Voice of an active network member

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