Authorities in Australia are calling for comments on a plan to develop a primary production and processing standard for high-risk horticulture.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ)’s proposal will consider the development of a primary production and processing (PPP) standard for high-risk horticulture as part of a broader review of Chapter 3 and 4 of the Food Standards Code.

The agency will assess if sprouts and ready-to-eat minimally processed fruits and vegetables, which are covered by existing standards in the code, need more consideration as part of review work. Whether a food is determined to be high risk depends on its nature, whether pathogens can grow in it, and how the food is produced and consumed.

FSANZ has developed PPP standards for the seafood, dairy, egg, meat, poultry and seed sprouts sectors.

Two part process
Mark Booth, FSANZ chief executive officer, said it is looking at primary production and processing activities in leafy vegetables, melons, and berries as there are no consistent, national regulatory food safety requirements applied to these sectors.

“The vast majority of horticultural produce in Australia is safe and healthy, however outbreaks linked to particular produce sectors continue to occur. At the request of ministers responsible for food regulation, FSANZ is reassessing the need to amend the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code to enact a primary production and processing standard to manage food safety for high-risk horticulture.”

Booth said the move is the first of two public rounds of consultation.

“This initial round of consultation is seeking information from stakeholders to help us better understand these high-risk sectors and whether a regulatory approach is required – including what that regulation might look like. We are also establishing a standard development advisory group consisting of representatives from industry peak bodies and government regulators to assist with and advise on the current work.”

The period for comment closes on March 18, 2020. There will be another opportunity to comment in a consultation expected in late 2020.

Need to address the issue
In June 2018, the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation noted an increase of foodborne illness outbreaks in Australia and agreed there was a need to reassess the food safety risk management of five high risk horticulture sectors: ready to eat, minimally processed fruits and vegetables, fresh leafy green vegetables, melons, berries, and sprouts.

Feedback on an information paper on reviewing the code published in May 2019 showed general support for FSANZ to consider high-risk horticulture and to develop a standard and traceability provisions.

An assessment of foodborne illness backed the assumption that fresh leafy vegetables and herbs, rockmelons (cantaloupes), fresh and semi-dried tomatoes and raspberries were commonly associated with illness. Key contributing risk factors involved in produce contamination included use of pre- and post-harvest water, environmental factors and poor hygienic practices.

An FSANZ preliminary assessment of Australian and international outbreaks between 2011 and 2019 indicated deaths and serious illnesses associated with high-risk horticultural produce continue to occur.

In this period, several foodborne outbreaks in Australia were associated with fresh horticultural produce involving more than 400 cases and nine deaths. Two rockmelon outbreaks in 2016 and 2018 were responsible for 166 illnesses and eight deaths. The 2018 outbreak of Listeria associated with rockmelons resulted in 22 illnesses, eight deaths, temporarily closed an export market and impacted the domestic market with losses to growers estimated to be around AU$15 million (U.S.$10 million).

FSANZ examined food safety management in the horticulture sector in 2011 but decided in 2014 not to change the rules. This was partly based on an estimated 70 to 80 percent of the Australian horticultural produce being grown under a food safety scheme. Investigations into some recent outbreaks show businesses had these system in place but they were not effective in avoiding an outbreak.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)