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Assessment Report of Costa Rica's Food Safety Control System for Fresh Fruit
5.0 Findings

In Costa Rica, the responsibility for food safety with respect to FF is covered by multiple pieces of legislation, and responsibilities are shared across multiple government departments, including: the MOH, and MAG (see Annex B).

In general, chemical food safety is the responsibility of the MAG while general food safety is the responsibility of the MOH.

Other government departments with supporting roles include:

5.1 Regulatory foundation

The framework for FF food safety in Costa Rica is established by several laws, decrees and other instruments under the responsibility of both MOH and MAG, as outlined in Table 2.

Table 2: Key laws and decrees which establish Costa Rica's food safety framework
Instrument Name Ministry
Law 5395 The General Law of Health MOH
Law 5412 The Organic Law of the Ministry of Health MOH
Law 7664 The Phytosanitary Protection Law MAG
Decree 35485 Microbiological Criteria for Food Safety MOH
Decree 33724 GMPs for Processed Foods MOH
Decree 37057 Good Hygiene Practices (GHPs) for Non-Processed and Semi-processed Foods MOH

Additional decrees focus on potable water, health surveillance, sanitary registry, inspections, outbreak management, alerts, sampling and analysis, and the maintenance of health records. Each regulatory tool is supported by instruments to promote compliance: protocols, guides etc.

Costa Rica is a member of the Central American Technical Regulation (CATR) Committee which establishes technical requirements (standards) at the Central American level. Any regulations made at the Central American level must be complied with by each of the signatory countries. In fact, they supersede any existing national law(s).

For example, the CATR for Microbiological Criteria for Food Safety provides sampling protocols and acceptability criteria for various foods for the purpose of registration and surveillance, and, the CATR for GHPs for Non-Processed Food or Semi-Processed Food establishes general provisions and hygiene practices for unprocessed foodsFootnote 3.

5.2 Development of the national food safety system

In aims of coordinating food safety activities at the national level, Decree 30083/17/01/2002 established a Ministerial Council and the Inter-sectoral Commission on Food Safety. The Ministerial Council supports the coordination of all activities of this initiative. The Inter-sectoral Commission identifies the roles and responsibilities of each Ministry involved in food safety in aims of developing a single national food safety system.

The commission is comprised of various ministries in 3 key sectors: health, agriculture and economy. These are further supported by strong participation from all sectors including agriculture, education, business and civil society (national association of consumers).

The Inter-sectoral Commission, coordinated by the Secretaría de la Política Nacional De Alimentación y Nutrición (SEPAN) of the MOH developed Decree 35960/3/05/2010 that established the National Food Safety Policy. Although the supporting structure to enable this decree has not been fully developed or implemented, the team observed strong commitment to this initiative from senior representatives of both MOH and MAG.

The CAs explained that they are in the process of developing a National Food Safety System (NFSS) in which the government departments will work closely together to provide a more integrated and coordinated approach to food safety in the future.

Costa Rica plans to work on a system to establish alerts and use the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) as a focal point. INFOSAN assists Member States in managing food safety risks, ensuring rapid sharing of information during food safety emergencies to stop the spread of contaminated food from one country to another.

5.3 Government roles and responsibilities

This section describes the main roles of the key ministries involved in FF food safety under the current structure.

5.3.1 Ministry of Health

The organizational structure of the MOH is presented in Annex 2. National structure

The Direction of Regulation of Products of Sanitary Interest is responsible for the development of regulations, protocols and procedures related to food. They are also responsible for annual food control plans and, for ensuring compliance with the CATR for Microbiological Criteria for Food Safety. This group has the authority to issue recalls and other corrective measures in the case of a NC. Laboratory Analysis related to the annual food control plans are carried out at INCIENSA.

SEPAN is the secretariat for national food policy. It also coordinates other activities related to food and nutrition; for example, food safety issues. SEPAN also leads the coordination of the NFSS.

The Direction of Customer Care is in charge of both imports and exports. It issues:

  • technical notices
  • health-related import requirements
  • export certifications when required by an importing country

The Health Surveillance Authority is responsible for issuing food safety alerts. Regional structure

Under the MOH, there are 9 regional offices and 84 governing (local) areas which range in complexity based on population and, the nature of the local industry.

The MOH employs environmental managers (EMs) who conduct activities according to their diverse mandate and responsibilities (from food safety to fire and earthquake safety) including:

  • inspections to verify implementation of MOH regulations (not just food safety)
  • issuing operating sanitary permits to establishments as a pre-requisite to operate
  • training companies on the implementation of the MOH regulations

The number of EMs per region varies from 3 to 8 people depending on the needs of their area. There are approximately 500 EMs.

EMs conduct GMP/GHP verifications at FF establishments against the requirements in the CATR for GHPs for Unprocessed Food. EMs follow an established written procedure which requires written evidence to be left at the establishment inspected. The CFIA team noticed inconsistencies in compliance of this requirement. Training

Standardized training is delivered at national and regional levels for consistency. Costa Rica's National Training Institute (INA) provides food safety training to government employees, industry and, local citizens. Government employees are trained through Train the Trainer sessions who can then also provide free training to industry.

EMs are required to have a 4 year degree (BSc or equivalent) before they can be hired. The CFIA team observed that most are biologists, microbiologists, or environmental specialists.

EMs receive 1 year of comprehensive training from INA at the beginning of their career before they can conduct activities independently. The training covers all of their areas of responsibility (food, fire, earthquake safety etc.). Successful candidates are considered to be Professionals in Regulation of the Civil Service. Refresher training is provided as required.

The scope of roles and responsibilities of EMs is currently being reviewed to determine whether more specific responsibilities (instead of broad ones) or alternate methods of delivery (for example, 3rd party delivery) could make their work more efficient.

The assessment team was informed that the Inter-sectoral Commission is developing standardized training for several ministries including MOH, Servicio Nacional de Salud Animal (SENASA), MEIC etc. The goal is to increase knowledge and understanding of each other's roles and responsibilities across the food continuum in aims of strengthening the system as a whole. In the future, participants will receive a food safety inspection certificate. Monitoring and surveillance

The MOH focuses on microbiological, mycotoxin, heavy metals, allergens and labelling issues. Samples are taken according to annual control (sampling) plans which are developed in coordination with INCIENSA. Priorities are established based on the requirements in the Microbiological Criteria for Food Safety CATR, previous history of compliance, the risk classification of the food etc. Regional offices may have enhanced sampling plans depending on the area's specific needs and history, for example, type of production, and previous issues.

The MOH has the authority to take samples from both processing facilities and from the marketplace. Sampling for the annual control plan is typically conducted at markets in San Jose unless additional sample units are required to make up a sample size in which case samples may be taken in the regions. Sampling may also be conducted as part of an investigation.

Samples are analyzed by the INCIENSA National Reference Center laboratory. The MOH is informed of any positive results and may issue a sanitary order which can trigger corrective actions, re-sampling, seizing product on a precautionary basis while compliance is being confirmed, market withdrawal, recall, and/or suspension of products and/or risk communication. All sanitary sanctions available are documented in an MOH decree. In 2017, 3,014 analyses were conducted, resulting in 29 sanitary orders.

The team was not able to confirm whether the MOH conducts risk assessments to determine appropriate actions or, whether every positive finding is treated the same way. Outbreak investigation and response

Outbreak investigation and response is guided by the Protocol for Surveillance of Food and Water-borne Diseases for Outbreak detection and Intervention. The team did not have the opportunity to observe or discuss in detail Costa Rica's outbreak response protocols and procedures due to time constraints.

5.3.2 Ministry of Agriculture

The Servicio Fitosanitario Del Estado of the MAG (the SFE) is responsible for the oversight of chemical food safety of FF in Costa Rica. The organizational structure of MAG-SFE is presented in Annex 3. National structure

The Law of Phytosanitary Protection (7664) provides the legal authority to regulate pesticides, including the use and management of chemical, biological, or related substances for agricultural use to protect human health and the environment. To achieve this, SFE's activities focus on:

  • registration of pesticides
  • control of the quality of agricultural inputs (pesticides and other inputs)
    • assessing the quality of agrochemicals to ensure free from contamination
    • auditing of chemical storage areas
  • control of pesticides in food
    • promoting the use of GAPs to prevent inappropriate use/storage/disposal of agrochemicals
    • testing FF (at farms, markets, entry and exit points), runoff water, and agricultural soil for pesticide residues

This work is conducted by 3 employees at headquarters and 60 employees across 8 regions.

The law also gives SFE the authority to:

  • sample, seize or prevent the importation of non-compliant food
  • to retain or destroy FF that contain pesticides residue levels above the maximum limitFootnote 4

SFE's activities are enabled by a series of decrees. Decrees are also used to prohibit the use of specific products. For example, carbofurans, bromacil, endosulfin, malathion. Regional structure

Regional SFE staff are responsible for verifying GAPs and chemical residues.

They take samples for pesticide residues according to an annual sampling plan which considers geographical location, crops and inputs typically used in their production, diet, origin of product (imported or for domestic versus export), prior history etc. Soil, water, and sediment are usually sampled in follow up to positive results. A total of 5,500 samples were taken in 2017, of which 50 were non-compliant. Samples are collected on Mondays and are sent to SFE's LRE for analysis (6,000 – 7,000 analyses per year). This service is delivered at no cost to farmers, but importers are responsible for the cost of analysis of imported products.

Regional inspectors rotate to promote impartiality when conducting inspections. In the case of NCs, regional staff take samples and observe the operation for 6 months to ensure compliance.

Regional facility visits are integrated and include chemical residue sampling and phytosanitary requirements.

Employees from one regional office can be sent to another region to assist in inspection activities. Inspectors conduct inspections of plant packaging facilities.

Each region develops an annual operational plan which includes sampling and training.

Regional SFE staff is also responsible for verification of and training on GAPs, including follow up activities. They train local producers in areas of highest risk which are identified through the results of the annual sampling plan. SFE staff also provide advisory services in the development and implementation of GAPs by providing model systems, and crop-specific manuals. Nine thousand (9,000) producers were trained in a period of 1.5 years.

SFE staff also routinely conducts GMP inspections at packing facilities. They document the results in an official government document (referred to as a 'log book') which is kept at the facility. A carbon copy of the findings is taken by the inspector. Training

Both SFE headquarters and regional officers are trained on GAPs and GMPs. Since the EU and US are Costa Rica's main markets for FF, much of the regional officer training focuses on EU and US food safety and import requirements.

Regional officers are also trained to take samples. Refresher courses are provided as needed. For example, a refresher on sampling was delivered to all 120 government personnel in 2017.

Industry is trained on GAPs/GMPs by SFE and by trading partners (EU, US, Canada). The training provides knowledge and tools to food producing companies and agricultural producers who export.

Regional SFE staff provides quarterly training to farmers to address trends in NC. This training includes GAPs, sampling, integrated pest management, maximum residue limits, personal protection equipment (PPE) etc. SFE can provide financial support to farmers for training. SFE also trains people who sell pesticides who in turn can educate farmers on the appropriate use/handling of their products.

In addition, the SFE prepares manuals, as well as radio and television campaigns which highlight GAPs (integrated pest management, equipment and calibrations, preparation, storage and disposal, use of personal protective equipment) and food safety issues identified in specific crops such as, strawberries, mangoes, pineapple and cilantro. The television/radio campaigns target both industry and, the general population to encourage consumers to demand food quality and safety.

SFE communicates closely with the MOH in cases of water pollution and aflatoxins, but there is no national process for communicating between regional offices of SFE and MOH.

5.4 National Water Authority

Following a history of poor water quality, AyA, was delegated responsibility for management and stewardship of municipal water and sanitation services for the country, and, given the mission to improve the quality of the water from aqueduct sources. Water from rural or community wells and, water within food establishments is under the jurisdiction of the MOH while water for irrigation is regulated by the MAG.

AyA's work is supported by a series of laws and decrees which gave them the authority to create a national laboratory for potable water (LNA) and, a water purification plant at the centre of the union. The Drinking Water Law (2015) provides chemical and microbiological analyses and criteria which are based on criteria established by the World Health Organization.

Today, Costa Rica boasts that 93.9% of water from aqueducts is safe and potable.

5.5 Promoter of Foreign Trade of Costa Rica

PROCOMER is the institution in charge of promoting the export of Costa Rican goods and services throughout the world. Created in 1996 through the Law of the Republic number 7638, they also facilitate the exportation procedures, generate exportation chains, register exportation statistics of goods, and perform market studies. Before companies can export their products they must register as an exporter with PROCOMER. A single window centralizes and facilitates import and export procedures including registration, technical requirements, and guidance for certificates of origin. A certificate is issued as evidence of registration.

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