Contaminated meat scandal exposes Germany’s food safety flaws

A spokeswoman for the ministry admitted that there had been problems with the process. Although mistakes were made, internal processes are now being optimised. "This should not have been left on the market," the spokeswoman said. [Mark Agnor/ Shutterstock]

Three people died in Germany because bacteria-contaminated food from a meat producer was sold on the European market. Although the authorities knew about the bacterial discovery, production was only halted after two weeks. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Another food scandal is making headlines in Germany. Three people have died as a result of Listeria-infested meat products from the Wilke company, while 37 people are said to have fallen ill because of the bacteria.

The company’s production has currently been halted and investigative procedures have been initiated against the managing director of the sausage manufacturer on suspicion of negligent homicide.

But the meat has already been widely distributed as food from the Wilke company is said to have been sold under 13 different brands in 21 EU countries, as well as in several other countries across the globe.

Again, questions arise: How can such large-scale scandals repeatedly occur despite allegedly proper food controls in Germany and the EU?

According to what is known, there have been several misdemeanours since the scandal was made public.

As early as 12 August, the Robert Koch Institute reported suspicion of listeria in Wilke products. But after Hessen’s environment ministry had received the report, it did not budge for eight days.

In August and September, the authorities initiated two inspections of the sausage factory, the second of which was considered to have largely eliminated the hygienic defects.

But shortly afterwards, on 2 October, measures were initiated to stop the spread of all affected products, and a list of 1,100 product names was published. According to data from the department of the environment, no more dangerous products currently remain on the market.

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The fact that the food was then withdrawn from the market raises further questions. Why was the company inspected and found to be clean, but the products recalled shortly afterwards?

A spokeswoman for the ministry admitted that there had been problems with the process. Although mistakes were made, internal processes are now being optimised.

“This should not have been left on the market,” the spokeswoman said.

The district is overwhelmed

The consumer organisation Foodwatch has been very critical of the situation.

It criticised the responsible authorities, who had been aware of the listeria contamination since 15 September but only put a stop to production two weeks later.

It also criticised the gaps in the precautionary principle. A Foodwatch spokesperson told EURACTIV that districts have control over food producers but do not sufficiently comply with the prescribed controls.

An enquiry was made to the district of Waldeck-Frankenberg, which is responsible for the Wilke company.  It was found that in 2018, the district had only arranged about half as many inspections in its food companies as would have been necessary.

On the other hand, there is a lack of efficient processing of the production chains, which are complex and internationally networked these days.

“In theory, the district is responsible for processing the production chain. But in the case of Wilke, where goods were sold to 29 countries, the district was obviously overwhelmed. At the same time, it is of course not always in the interest of the district if a company has to close and jobs are lost,” said Foodwatch’s Dario Sarmadi.

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Gaps in European food law?

Foodwatch itself said that European food law sufficiently regulates the food monitoring sector in the EU. In severe cases such as Wilke’s bacteria-contaminated meat, the European rapid alert system RASFF, which issues a warning to all national authorities, takes effect.

However, the traceability of the production chain often failed because companies had not kept sufficient records of all suppliers. Besides, the relevant national authorities do not always sufficiently implement the required standards, according to consumer protection organisations.

There is also a lack of consumer rights, as well as an insufficient amount of strict rules on when authorities must publish consumer-relevant information. Foodwatch is, therefore, calling for these points to be improved at the EU level.

The EU’s General Food Law Regulation is currently being revised, and only in June did the EU Council adopt a new directive. The new directive relates primarily to the transparency of procedures for the risk assessment of foodstuffs.

Where and to whom exactly do Wilke’s products have been sold currently remains under wraps. The court rejected an urgent application to the administrative court in the city of Kassel, where Foodwatch had requested all the information to be disclosed.

“It could, therefore, take months before we have all the information about customers and points of sale,” Sarmadi said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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