A record-high level of food incidents and recalls have been recorded in Australia, according to the annual report of Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

The food safety team at Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) coordinated 106 incidents and recalls from July 2018 to June 2019, which was the highest number of recalls in a 12 month period. This compares to 81 recalls in the same period from 2017 to 2018 and 61 from 2016 to 2017.

Most recalls due to undeclared allergens
A total of 37 percent were due to undeclared allergens, 34 percent because of microbial contamination and 14 percent due to foreign matter. The strawberry tampering incident in September 2018 was one of the most significant events of the year. It involved sewing needles being put in Australian strawberries.

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FSANZ has identified four main causes of allergen-related recalls, including lack of skills and knowledge of labeling requirements, supplier verification, packaging errors and accidental cross-contamination.

Customer complaints have been the most common method of detecting the need to recall food due to allergens, followed by routine testing by the company and then routine government testing. Packaging errors are the top cause of undeclared allergen recalls.

FSANZ coordinates the Bi-National Food Safety Network to boost national coordination, early information sharing, and communication on food incidents between government agencies. It includes all Australian state and territory food enforcement agencies, Department of Health, Department of Agriculture and the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries.

During 2018-19 fourteen issues were referred to the network, including Listeria in frozen vegetables from Belgium, Salmonella Enteritidis in eggs and the strawberry tampering incident.

FSANZ reported three food safety events to the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) relating to the Listeria in vegetable incident referenced above and white mold cheeses from France.

FSANZ also reported 14 incidents to states and territories following the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) notifications. They included border rejections and unauthorized substances, undeclared allergen detections and biotoxin, chemical and microbial contaminations.

Strawberry tampering reports
FSANZ released a report on the strawberry tampering incident in February 2019. A follow-up was published in June following a debrief meeting in May.

It was initially thought to be an isolated event in Queensland but soon escalated to other states and territories involving multiple tamperings in strawberries and other fruit. Only a few instances were believed by authorities to be associated with the original with most believed to hoax or ‘copycat’ events.

The February report found the government’s response was timely but identified areas to improve with seven recommendations.

The follow-up report covered supply chain vulnerability and traceability, communication and social media and emergency response protocols.

Needles in strawberries were viewed as a ‘best case scenario’ tampering incident as it was evident and the product packaged. The event highlighted the potential for serious and wide-ranging implications if chemical, biological, or other less evident forms of tampering were used.

A further six recommendations were made such as developing guidance to manage the media during a tampering incident, look at running an intentional interference/tampering mock exercise and improve formal response management protocols between food regulators, criminal enforcement agencies and industry.

The risk of not acting on the recommendations includes continued risk to the public from food tampering incidents and to the country’s export market for horticultural products.

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