Why sell an ‘unsafe’ product?

Annoying, isn’t it? Buying your favourite bag of nuts or a new toy kitchen set for your toddler to play with, only to be notified by authorities that the product is unsafe and you must return it immediately. This year we have witnessed a number of recalls on products we consume regularly, such as ice-cream and chocolate bars.

Many people’s first reaction here is ‘why even sell an unsafe product, to begin with?’ So TheJournal.mt has dug deep to give readers a solid explanation. 

The Environmental Health Directorate explains how for a product to be recalled from the market, there first needs to be clear evidence of some kind of hazard in the product itself. This can vary from excessive chemicals, allergens, physical hazards such as glass or plastic pieces in food products, or pathogenic microbes. Each product available to us in supermarkets and stores is tested in laboratories either by local Health Authorities or by the company itself, sometimes after a complaint from a customer. 

The official identification can occur from local or foreign authorities depending on the product’s origin. If this happens to be a European Member State, an automatic process kicks off during which fellow member states who have bought, stocked and sold the product are notified through a Rapid Warning System for foodstuffs or other goods.

If the country of origin happens to be a non-EU country, such as the United Kingdom, Malta is notified through a similar resource called INFOSAN. In any case, all EU Member States including the Maltese Islands are obliged to manage a 24/7 email system that is specifically used for such notifications, which also operates after office hours. In such a case, the European Commission is also obliged to notify member states through a telephone call. 

The Environmental Health Department in Malta then holds its investigations on the product once the warning is registered, which also involves the product’s manufacturer. Operators are, at this point, obliged to provide all information on the product in the least amount of time, with the Department also issuing several public statements urging customers not to consume or use the product in question. At this point, the operator will be obliged to withdraw all remaining products from the market to put a halt to sales.

There have also been cases where the product in question had been manufactured in Malta, in which case, the country is obliged to notify the European Commission through INFOSAN, depending on the product itself. 

A brighter light was shed on product recalls earlier this year, when almost 60 products were recalled due to being contaminated with a cancer-causing substance. This was one of the most widespread recalls to date. The chemical in question, Ethylene Oxide, which in the EU is not allowed in food production, was detected in sesame seeds in Belgium last year but has since also been traced in other foodstuffs such as chewing gum, instant noodles and ice cream. 

This phenomenon resulted in chocolates and popular ice-cream brands being recalled in Malta but extended to fresh produce, oils and spices in other EU Member States.

Luckily, in this case, Malta’s market was much smaller and had therefore requested a limited range of products to be imported.

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