Operation of the Non-Statutory Surveillance Scheme:
1 & 2. Planning the year's programme
The VMD produces a draft plan, taking account of the criteria on toxicological significance and importance in the diet approved by the VRC. At a meeting of the full VRC, the draft plan is examined and discussed. The Committee are able to make recommendations to amend the plan.
The plan is loaded onto the Non-Statutory database at VMD. After consulting the Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) about the foods that would pass through their port, each BIP is allocated a number of samples for each food and residue for the year, along with a monthly sampling schedule. The VMD supply Mintel, a market research company, with a monthly sampling schedule for the foods their 'shoppers' to buy. They then divide this among 'shoppers' in different parts of the country.
3. Samples are collected
Port Health Officers collect the samples of imported foods at selected Border Inspection Posts, such as at Tilbury Docks. The Port Health Officers also collected samples as part of testing programmes under the EU's Veterinary Checks Directive and specific Commission Decisions applied to countries whose produce was suspected of containing residues of substances banned in the EU. Care is taken not to duplicate the sampling under the Commission Decisions when implementing the Non-Statutory sampling. Mintel 'shoppers' collected samples from shops and wholesalers throughout the UK. Both the Port Health Officers and Mintel staff work to protocols that instruct them to collect information that allows the VMD to identify the sample and allow its origin to be traced.
What constitutes a sample?
This depends on what food is being sampled and was calculated to be large enough to allow accurate analysis for the suspected residue. For example, for imported raw chicken collected at a Border Inspection Post, a sample is 250g of muscle.
4. Samples are sent to the laboratory to be analysed
Both Mintel and the Port Health Officers send the sealed samples to the Fera laboratory for delivery before 11.00 am the next day. On receipt, they are logged onto the computer system. This ensures that the progress of the samples can be monitored and there is an audit trail back to the producer or country of origin. The samples are stored deep-frozen to avoid deterioration. Samples to be analysed for the same substance are batched, to reduce costs, without effect on the accuracy of detection.
The laboratory normally performs a screening test to see if the particular residue or residues are present. If they detect a residue, the sample is then subject to confirmatory analysis to definitively identify the residue and usually measure the concentration.
5. Results are assessed
In common with the National Surveillance Scheme, the Non-Statutory Scheme results are presented at the VRC meetings during the year. This allows members to comment and ask questions on the results and assess their significance for consumers.
6 & 7. Follow-up investigations and issuing Rapid Alerts
The VMD informs retailers of any samples bought from their stores with residues above the relevant MRL or Action Level. The VMD also informs the Food Standards Agency (FSA). The FSA operate the EU's 'Rapid Alert System for Feed and Food' or RASFF in the UK. Under this system, all EU Member States are required to alert the European Commission when foods or feed containing residues of concern are discovered. More information on RASFF can be found on the FSA website.
If the food concerned was imported, the Chief Veterinary Officer of Defra is informed. He writes to the opposite number in the country concerned and asks them to investigate and report on the cause of the residue and steps to be taken to avoid recurrence. If residues of health concern were detected – for instance, of banned substances , the FSA could decide to ask local authorities to investigate and can also request and oversee product withdrawals.
Results are available to everyone
The reports on the Non-Statutory Scheme updating the Committee on the results are put on the VRC website. You can also find the results in the VMD's quarterly 'MAVIS' newsletter and on the VMD website.