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Customs found listeria in imported foods, allowed sale anyway

Officials stress that frozen produce should be heated before consumption.

Bakteerin viljelyä laboratoriossa.
Listeria monocytogenes bacteria is often found in unheated foods. Image: Tullilaboratorio

Finnish officials detected listeria bacteria in many imported frozen food products tested last year. However the levels were not high enough to warrant a ban on import or sales of the items, says Customs. The EU has set a maximum level of 100 colony-forming units (cfu) per gram.

The Customs Laboratory says it found listeria bacteria (L. monocytogenes) in frozen vegetables, berries and fruit in 2018, noting that this was the first time it had been detected in frozen fruit. The lab examined 78 batches of frozen fruit, finding listeria in eight of them, or nearly a quarter of samples.

The bacteria can cause listeriosis, a potentially fatal disease. Newborn infants, expectant mothers, the elderly and people with immune deficiency are particularly at risk. Nearly 1,500 human cases were diagnosed in the EU in 2011, with a mortality rate of 12.7 percent.

Belgian smoothie mix banned

The lab found listeria bacteria in 18 out of 80 batches of frozen vegetables tested. These included two maize (corn) samples containing the same type of listeria that has caused local listeria epidemics around Europe since 2015.

Customs authorities issued warnings to importers about the bacteria findings, and say they have stepped up inspections of frozen fruit in particular this year.

"Last year's findings reinforce the need for listeria studies. Listeria is destroyed when products are heated, while simply rinsing them with water does not remove the bacteria," said microbiologist Elina Vatunen from the Customs Laboratory.

The lab's inspections also discovered salmonella bacteria in one product, a frozen fruit smoothie mix imported from Belgium. Officials banned the sale of the product.

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