Imported lettuce served in daycare centres in the Jyväskylä region has been confirmed as the source of an outbreak of salmonella bacterial infections that affected about 450 children and daycare centre staff.
The City of Jyväskylä said in a statement that the same strain of salmonella was found in the lettuce and the affected patients, the vast majority of whom were children.
Domestically-produced cucumbers and peas were also suspected to be the cause of the outbreak, but the city said tests had revealed no connection between these products and the salmonella infections.
Samples taken from workers at the city's food supplier, Kylän kattaus, which prepares the meals for daycare centres in the region, have also proved to be negative for traces of salmonella bacteria.
Kylän kattaus director Tuija Sinisalo said the incident would likely spark debate on the safety of imported food products. She added that the firm relies on imports because lettuce is a seasonal product.
"Iceberg lettuce is a product that is not available domestically all year round," Sinisalo said. "Such mistakes can occur both at home and abroad. There are responsible suppliers among both [domestic and import]. Yes, this will certainly trigger an evaluation as to whether there is a need to change practices."
Self-monitoring plays a big role
The safety of food production is largely achieved through self-monitoring within the EU's internal market, according to Elina Leinonen, a senior inspector from the Finnish Food Safety Authority.
"The operation should be such that there is no risk. That we think in advance where bacteria might come into the products and how it can be combated," Leinonen said.
Authorities can monitor the quality of food batches by carrying out random checks, but this system can never fully guarantee that the whole batch is perfect, as it is not possible to sample every product, Leinonen added.
"The starting point cannot be that the authority examines all vegetables coming into Finland," she said.
For example, the iceberg lettuce suspected of causing the salmonella outbreak in the Jyväskylä region had come from a Swedish manufacturer within a batch of 6,000 bags, 42 of which ended up in the central kitchen of Kylän kattaus.
Leinonen further added that a long transport journey is not in itself a risk to food safety if controls are in place at all stages of the food chain and all parties concerned ensure that the products do not spoil.