The number of cases investigated by the Food Standards Agency as a result of information supplied by whistleblowers rocketed by more than 50 per cent last year, according to the organisation’s annual report.
A total of 81 cases were anonymously reported to the FSA by people working in the food industry, with the majority coming from concerns about the sale of unfit food and general hygiene issues.
The FSA was notified of and investigated a total of 1,604 food and environmental contamination incidents in 2012 – 110 fewer than the previous year, but still higher than in any year prior to 2011. The figures in the Annual Report of Incidents cover the period before the horsemeat scandal of 2013, when a number of processed meat products were found to contain horse DNA.
“We hope that this annual report encourages food businesses and consumers to notify us promptly of incidents and of any other potentially useful intelligence they have,” said Catherine Brown, chief executive of the FSA.
There were six incidents considered to be “high” risk level by the FSA, including the contamination of a batch of sorbitol (sweetener) with sodium nitrite and an outbreak of botulism linked to olives from Italy.
An outbreak of a strain of listeria which affected a number of hospitals in Northern Ireland was also ranked among the “high” level cases, as was the recall of peanut butter and other peanut products originating in the US due to contamination with strains of salmonella.
Problems relating to fruit and vegetables caused the highest number of incidents at 249, followed by non-poultry meat products with 206 investigations. Incidents involving shellfish totalled just 21 and the number of problems with poultry products was 28.
Only half of the total incidents came from food which originated in the UK, while one in ten came from other countries in the European Union, and the rest concerned goods imported from other countries.
Foods imported from India were the subject of more investigations than any other country with 162 incidents, followed by China with 95. The US was the origin of 40 problems with imported food.
The review also included the Olympic Games – the largest ever peacetime catering operation – which generated just 22 incidents, despite serving 14 million meals. The problems included minor cases of suspected food poisoning and food contamination, as well as a fire near the Olympic Park that could have ended up contaminating food.
The FSA also dealt with several incidents involving severe reactions in consumers with peanut allergies following the consumption of curry dishes purchased from Indian restaurants and takeaways.
“The finding from our investigations with the local authorities suggested that a number of these incidents were caused by the use of a ground almond ingredient, which also contained ground peanut,” the report said.
Officials found that many people involved at various points in the food chain did not understand the danger of substituting peanuts for almonds or had not correctly labelled products – but added that some may have made a “possibly economically motivated adulteration”.