Dejan Runtevski, Food Agency: Listeria is everywhere, but the food is safe
There will be no responsibility for inspection services because they reacted appropriately, says Dejan Runtevski, director of the Food and Veterinary Agency following the death of four people infected with the bacteria Listeria. He claims that the food in Macedonia is safe, but recommends strict adherence to hygiene rules and habits
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There will be no responsibility for inspection services because they reacted appropriately, says Dejan Runtevski, director of the Food and Veterinary Agency following the death of four people infected with the bacteria Listeria. He claims that the food in Macedonia is safe, but recommends strict adherence to hygiene rules and habits.
How safe is the food produced by Macedonian producers and the one imported in Macedonia?
Runtevski: The food produced and imported in Macedonia is generally safe. Food and Veterinary Agency within their jurisdictions performs daily inspections at border crossings, inside, or on the market. The fact that in these past few years we have not had serious incidents speaks enough that Macedonian food is safe.
Aflatoxin in milk, basa fish (panga) from Vietnam, horsemeat scandal in Europe last year, recent floods in the Balkans and contaminated water, sick animals. These are all hazards that lurk us daily, aren’t they?
Runtevski: All these cases do not refer to Macedonia. Aflatoxin crisis came out elsewhere in the region, Serbia and Croatia. We then proved that here, our producers were not affected by aflatoxin, that is in the products of our dairy industry no presence of aflatoxin was detected, so we guarantee that our industry is safe in that section. I do not know why there was panic regarding the fish panga because that fish is sold everywhere in Europe. It is not banned. This results from some speculations on social networks that a product is this or that, and that is not backed up with real results. Horsemeat was a classic example of consumer fraud. There was no question of a security perspective, but quality. They were hoaxing something that was not present in the products and there were no such products in Macedonia. Consumers in Macedonia were not affected by any of the things listed.
These days Listeria has been discussed a lot, can you tell us what Listeria actually is?
Runtevski: Listeria can be fatal only for people with compromised immune systems, elderly people, in pregnant women it may cause problems in the fetus. These risk groups of people should be more careful. Listeria is everywhere. It is in the air, air conditioning, in fruit, in vegetables, in salt. It is a bacterium that is present all around us. Approximately ten to fifteen percent of people have the bacteria Listeria in themselves and it is not something new that appears. It is good that the bacterium is very labile and at seventy degrees Celsius it is sufficient for two minutes to be completely destroyed. Hence the recommendations people to heat and process food well before eating and adhere to hygiene habits for washing fruits and vegetables before eating.
In May the Institute of Public Health warned that something strange was happening with Listeria. Could consequences have been avoided?
Runtevski: I do not know where you have this information from, but there was no such thing. The Food and Veterinary Agency was not been notified of the occurrence of Listeria in humans until mid-July when all cases were affected. The Agency was informed only of one case in 2013 and one in 2014. These are cases that result from Agency’s control. In the first case it was about a salad prepared in a restaurant in Skopje. The second case is from last year in Kumanovo and it was about intestines.
Is there still a risk of spread of infection with Listeria and other infectious diseases caused by unsafe food?
Runtevski: It will have to be further determined. For accidents that ended tragically they will have to determine when they were admitted, how they were admitted, how they were treated, whether it was instantly treated to determine if it could have been prevented in order not to escalate further. The danger of Listeria is always there. We passed an extraordinary decision for mandatory testing of animal products before their release into circulation. This means that products that are now in circulation must have proof that there is no presence of the bacterium Listeria in them. Although still there is no evidence that certain industries such as meat and dairy industry are associated with these cases, we still passed the measure to ensure that this segment is fully closed. This is because it is about products that are susceptible to the presence of this bacterium and which are widely prevalent in the daily diet of the population.
You said that germs are everywhere around us and in us. If so and if you cannot prevent their existence, then what is the best way to control them?
Runtevski: If talking about the manufacturing plants, the only way to control is regular hygiene procedures in food operators. That means regularly washing, cleaning and disinfecting plants, regularly sending samples according to HACCP plans that each company has. For people, however, adherence to regular hygiene habits in food consumption. These are basic things that people or operators should make to prevent infection or spread of Listeria, but also other bacteria such as Salmonella, Escherichia coli and other similar.
Experts say that 100 colonies per gram of food is permissible quantity of a bacterium. But in the amendments you foresee zero tolerance. Why is the law amended?
Runtevski: In Macedonia we have the European approach in this section and our legislation is fully harmonized with it. In certain products it allows the Listeria during the shelf life of the product. In European regulation this is allowed because it is considered a quantity which has no major impact on people’s health and safety. The other approach is the one in the United States where there is zero tolerance for Listeria after the outbreak that happened there. In consultation with the Ministry of Health we decided to go with the zero tolerance approach. There is no big reason for it, but we want to close that segment.
How do you control Macedonian food producers in meeting world standards that you have just mentioned?
Runtevski: Primary responsibility for food safety is in the food operator. Every food operator, depending on what and how much it produces, is obliged to provide adequate controls, to project an adequate plan of sampling its products. This is done on the basis of specific risk analysis. There are certain formulas that are widely accepted. That is how any system of food control works. At the same time the Food and Veterinary Agency controls the implementation of those plans. This means that when you go into control you check whether the operator has properly set the criteria, whether the sampling plan matches the kind and the type of production and whether the operator regularly sticks to the plan. The operator is obliged to respond immediately if particular nonconforming is determined. If the product is marketed, immediately to withdraw it and destroy or treat it properly, and to take measures such as washing, cleaning and everything else that follows to ensure that such a thing will not be repeated in future.
Is it here that you need to make amendments?
Runtevski: The only segment where we may need strengthening is mandatory reporting by laboratories to the agency, if any positive sample with an operator is determined. We have seen it and we work on the amendments. Until now the system was for regular controls or those from the border that the agency sends to get information from the lab and it works. However, for the private samples within the HACCP system, laboratories notified operators and they took measures. We only controlled their fulfillment. With the amendments now, as soon as something is signaled in the lab, it will immediately arrive in the agency. It will be plus controlling in terms of what you mentioned.
Several times you mentioned that cases of Listeria in food are below average, and complaints of citizens arriving here in your agency are about average. But even one human life is a lot. Who will bear the responsibility for the case of Listeria?
Runtevski: Let’s not forget that the cause for Listeria and its relation to the cases is not known yet. You can find Listeria in plants and it is not an issue, you can find it in the markets, too. It is everywhere. It should be seen whether these effects in people are associated with consumption of a certain product. If it is proved that the cause of death was consumption of a particular product, then the investigation will normally be directed to the operator that marketed the product. When the connection with the cause has been proved, normally we will ask the operator to bear the responsibility.
Will there be responsibility in your ranks, in the inspection, in the Food and Veterinary Agency?
Runtevski: No. The inspection services have not concealed anything of what was referred to as information to the agency, it was accordingly reacted. Companies fulfill plans, send samples for analysis, so that the system, as it is, works. This is not a system that we have invented, but a principle of operation according to which all competent authorities in the area of food safety in Europe work.