Brussels flags hygiene issues in Maltese fisheries

European Commission report finds serious food safety deficiencies in numerous areas connected with local fisheries

A deficiency noted in the FVO’s report is that the Veterinary Regulation Directorate (VRD) has no access to the data on registered vessels and landings held by the authority responsible for vessel registration, namely the Directorate for Fisheries and Aquaculture
A deficiency noted in the FVO’s report is that the Veterinary Regulation Directorate (VRD) has no access to the data on registered vessels and landings held by the authority responsible for vessel registration, namely the Directorate for Fisheries and Aquaculture

The absence of regular testing for histamine, freshness and the presence of parasites is one of the “serious deficiencies” in official controls found “in a multitude of areas” related to food safety in Maltese fisheries.

Histamine fish poisoning results from the consumption of inadequately preserved and improperly refrigerated fish. The symptoms, which resemble an allergic reaction, are actually caused by bacterially-generated toxins in the fish’s tissues.

According to the European Commission’s audit report, official controls of fisheries products have demonstrated important deficiencies, “as the required checks for histamine, parasites and organoleptic characteristics (freshness) are not carried out”.

And in most land-based establishments, the specific risks posed by “histamine, parasites, and mercury for species like tuna and swordfish” were not being considered by the business operator or verified during official controls.

Moreover, the Environment Health Directorate carried out no tests for histamine in 2018.

In its reply to the report, the Maltese government announced a checklist on official controls to be carried out on land establishments.

This checklist, among others, will include organoleptic (freshness) and parasite checks.

Until 2018, only one establishment dealing with these fish was testing for the presence of histamine. In others, histamine testing is planned for the first time in 2019.

Shortcoming found in three establishments

Three of the eight land-based fish-handling establishments inspected by the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office did not comply with hygiene requirements.

During this audit, issues were identified with the drainage system in one establishment, which resulted in “a strong smell of fish decomposition”.

Other deficiencies found included floors and wall surfaces which were not well-maintained. In some establishments surfaces where fish were being cut were not adequate for easy cleaning and disinfection.

In one case fish products that had been prepared were found lying on a crate on the floor at a temperature of 13 °C.

There was also a lack of pest control in one establishment that was preparing fish because it had an exterior door open. Significant condensation in a refrigeration unit resulted in water dripping and then pooling on boxes containing fishery products.

Several cold stores did not have continuous temperature recording devices and in one establishment “the cold store was used for both the storage and freezing of fish”.

While noting that a documented control system is in place for all land-based establishments, shortcomings were found, “either in the coverage of the controls, their implementation, and/or in the timely correction of observed deficiencies”.

Moreover, according to the commission’s report there were a number of instances where the authorities failed  “to take corrective actions in a timely way” and  “as a consequence, non-compliant premises were left in operation”.

Action taken by authorities

In their reply to the report the Maltese authorities confirmed that action had been taken against the three establishments where structural maintenance and hygiene issues have been identified.

One of the establishments is being relocated. The second establishment is looking for relocation and the new premises’ layout is being evaluated.

A third establishment is following a maintenance action plan programme and several improvements on the deficiencies have been noted.

A cold store which posed public health risks was served with a warning letter and a court citation asking the operator either to admit guilt and pay an administrative fine of over €7,764.57 or to go to court. The operational permit for this cold store has been withdrawn.

Furthermore, the government has agreed to step up inspections during 2019.

All the land fishery product establishments will be visited at least twice; cold stores will be visited every 18 months and freezer vessels will be inspected at least every five years.

Auction hall is well maintained

The auction hall where fishermen transport their fish from the landing sites was found to have a “good structure, was well lit and maintained”, the FVA audit found. The chiller was fitted with a continuous temperature-recording device.

But the audit team noted that in some cases the fish was not stored under a sufficient quantity of ice “or under no ice at all”. Besides, due to limited space, clean and dirty boxes were not kept clearly separated.

“Many registered buyers without appropriate protective clothing were handling the fish during the sale, raising hygiene issues”.

VRD has no access to list of freezer vessels

Another deficiency noted in the FVA’s report is that the Veterinary Regulation Directorate (VRD) has no access to the data on registered vessels and landings held by the authority responsible for vessel registration, namely the Directorate for Fisheries and Aquaculture.

This means that the competent authority has “has no oversight over vessels and landings subject to official controls”.

A second consequence is that “the competent authority is not in a position to provide correct and up-to-date information as regards the list of vessels that require approval under EU law”.

The report warns that fishery products are being placed on the market, “prepared and handled in freezer vessels that have not been approved by VRD”.

The audit team visited the only two freezer vessels approved by the VRD (out of approximately 30 freezer vessels registered). The vessels engaged in fishing and freezing red shrimp were found to be in “excellent condition” with regard to hygiene and equipment.

An official request has been addressed through the Food Safety Commission to the Directorate for Fisheries and Aquaculture (DFA), requesting access to the list of the registered fishing vessels. An official letter was also sent to the DFA in order to obtain “all the necessary information about all landings of frozen fishery products”.

As soon as the information is provided, the VRD will start the approval procedure for all freezer vessels.

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