Are food hygiene controls in the hands of companies reliable? –

On Wednesday, searches were carried out at the Buitoni factory in Caudry (northern France), owned by Nestlé and a production site for Fraich’up frozen pizzas. These possible cases of contamination by the E.coli bacteria follow salmonella discovered in some children 10 days ago. The opportunity to dwell on the controls carried out by the producers. How are they made in French-speaking Switzerland? And can we rely on it? Here are some answers.

“The control system is primarily based on the responsibility of the company,” confirms cantonal chemist Patrick Edder of Geneva.

A company that markets food must ensure that all its products are fully compliant with legislation and do not pose a risk to human health. “State control is an additional control that is mainly there to make sure that the company does its job and takes up its responsibilities,” adds the one who is also vice chairman of the cantonal chemists.

Go up the whole chain

We had to knock on many doors – fifteen to be exact – before we found a company that showed us how their control system worked. In Moudon (VD), the Le Grand Pré cheese dairy receives us very early, at the time of delivery.

Marc Bettex, quality manager of the cheese factory, takes a small sample with each new delivery, as prescribed in the protocol. “It is a control milk. It is kept in the freezer for six months. If we have a problem with one of the batches, we have to be able to move up the entire chain,” he explains.

25,000 francs a year

This is a few milliliters of milk heated to 70 degrees for about fifteen seconds. Pasteurization removes all traces of salmonella and listeria. But other bacteria can grow on the molds that make up the cheeses. Marc Bettex inspects them after every tour.

“We rub these agar plates against the surface of the material before we bring them to the laboratory. If the bacteria are present on the surface, they grow on the plate,” shows the quality manager.

This cheese factory spends 25,000 francs annually on the quality control of its products. For its director Jacques Demierre, this cost is essential to meet the expectations and fears of consumers. “It is necessary, if we work with living products, we are obliged to give this guarantee to consumers. People are interested in the origin of the products, we have to respond to their fears.”

Checks not always unexpected

To ensure that food safety is under control and that companies comply with theFood Hygiene Regulation, the cantonal authorities carry out regular checks. According to Patrick Edder, the frequency depends on the type of establishment. “A restaurant is inspected every two years, but an industry that produces minced meat, for example, is inspected every year.”

If the regulation is not good, the frequency will be higher. But on average about 4,000 inspections are carried out every year. That is almost half of the 8,500 companies on the radar of the authorities.

But these checks are not always carried out by surprise. Last year almost 40% of the visits were organised. “With larger companies, we give 24 or 48 hours notice to make an appointment, because the work is largely documentary and we need the presence of the quality manager. But if he’s not okay, the deadline doesn’t run away from him enough time to get organised,” assures Patrick Edder.

“An Armada of Inspectors”

According to him, the Ferrero plant in Arlon, Belgium, which had discovered a bacteria on its site and continued to market its product, was responsible for “serious misconduct”. But the current system of self-checking of companies is all that is possible today, because “an armada of inspectors in the cantons would be needed to carry out these checks. And after all, it is the company that knows its products best and who can best carry out checks on the products it manufactures.”

According to the European system RASFF warningA total of 35 food products manufactured in Switzerland have been the subject of suspicion in the past three years, including 22 due to serious risks of contamination.

Feriel Mestiri and Charlotte Onfroy-Barrier

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