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Strawberry Tampering Report: Is this the end of a horticulture food safety standard?

Published: 2 Apr 2019

Strawberry Tampering Report: Is this the end of a horticulture food safety standard?

By Joe Lederman (FoodLegal Co-Principal)

© Lawmedia Pty Ltd, April 2019

This article addresses the February 2019 report by government body Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). FSANZ had been commissioned to examine regulatory deficiencies in relation to the Australian horticultural supply chain and food incident response protocols following a major strawberry tampering incident in 2018. However, this was not the first time that FSANZ has reported on the same food safety issues affecting horticulture supply chains. This article examines the lack of progress.

Following a major tampering incident of Australian strawberries in September 2018, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) was commissioned by the Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt to undertake an investigation and produce a report with recommendations for improvements to prevent any recurrence of a similar food tampering incident. The aim of the report was also to investigate whether there are supply chain weaknesses within the industry, investigate whether the police can be of further assistance in food safety incidents and whether systematic changes are required and can be implemented.

The FSANZ Recommendations

On 1 February 2019, FSANZ issued its report, which made the following principal recommendations:

(1)  All state and territory jurisdictions should review their food incident response protocols - in particular ensuring that formal linkages between regulators, health departments and police are in place for incident involving intentional contamination.

(2)  A central agency should be engaged to ensure national coordination of messaging and information when a food tampering incident occurs.

(3)  Police should be included in national food safety incident debriefs when intentional food tampering is involved.

(4)  Triggers for activation and management of intentional contamination of food under the National Food Incident Response Protocol (NFIRP) should be reviewed by the food regulatory system.

(5)  A representative body for the horticulture industry be developed to support crisis preparedness and response in the sector.

(6)  Traceability measures within the horticulture sector need to be strengthened.

(7)  Work on traceability should include collaborations with research bodies and other stakeholders to evaluate technical and innovative solutions to improve quality assurance throughout the supply chain.

FoodLegal’s observations:

1.    The strawberry tampering incident identified vulnerabilities in Australia’s food safety incident management and response protocols. These weaknesses impacted the whole horticultural supply chain for strawberries beyond the product of the immediate supplier of the first identified problem product. FSANZ noted the strawberry supply chain vulnerabilities, weaknesses in product traceability, lack of crisis management bodies and processes, as well as unclear and inconsistent communication and messaging across the whole strawberry industry sector.

 

2.    Recommendation (2) to engage a central agency to manage messaging and information, begs the question: Wasn’t FSANZ the actual agency responsible for the function of co-ordinating food recall information on a national basis? What was it doing during the strawberry tampering crisis? In reality, FSANZ was charged by Minister Hunt to investigate itself! Is FSANZ now recommending an extra separate body to assume a FSANZ function?

 

3.    Recommendation (5) also proposes that a “specialised body for the horticulture industry” be created to manage crisis preparedness and responses in the sector and to assist to create a more streamlined incident-response. However, such a body existed in the past, yet was dismantled almost 10 years ago due to lack of funding.

 

4.    The strawberry tampering incident is not the only incident in Australia which has highlighted the food safety deficiencies in the horticulture industry. In March 2009 there was an outbreak of Hepatitis A which was alleged to have been caused by viral contamination somewhere in the supply chain or processing lines for semi-dried tomatoes.

 

The March 2009 semi-dried tomato crisis raised serious questions about the weaknesses in Australia’s food safety regulations and accordingly, FSANZ issued a proposal, to amend the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (the Food Standards Code) in FSANZ proposal P1012 released on 21 January 2010. Initially, the proposal sought to vary the Food Standards Code to include traceability and processing requirements, specifically for semi-dried tomatoes and the ingredients such as tomatoes and other foods likely to be used in the semi-dried tomatoes. This proposal included requirements which would ensure that sufficient traceability records would be available to respond effectively to any future food safety outbreaks.

 

After industry consultation and review, that proposal was then amended in favour of a more generalist approach, not limited specifically to tomatoes but addressing the horticulture industry as a whole.

 

The amended FSANZ proposal P1050 released on 16 January 2012 was said to be aimed at creating regulatory measures which proposed better traceability and food safety measures within the whole horticulture sector. However, FSANZ decided to abandon the proposal not long afterwards, and said that the horticulture industry would adopt its own "non-regulatory" measures instead, without any need to amend the Food Standards Code. These “non-regulatory” measures were to be “a collaborative approach involving the horticulture industry and government to develop, as appropriate, targeted guidance, codes of practice and educative materials as well as better through-chain traceability measures”. These were to be examined in 2014. So far as we are aware and as discussed in our past FoodLegal Bulletin article ‘Hepatitis A and food testing: What lessons were learned by governments from last time?’, this did not occur.

 

5.    Therefore, the latest FSANZ report in February 2019 which has recommendations to strengthen traceability measures within the horticulture sector in recommendation (6), and to collaborate with research bodies to improve quality assurance throughout the supply chain in recommendation (7), are actually no different from earlier suggestions made by FSANZ nearly a decade ago after similar food safety problems were previously identified.

Abandonment of proposed PPP Standard in the Food Standards Code

Following the semi-dried tomato food safety incident in 2009, FSANZ initially stated that to protect public health and safety there should be a variation to Standard 1.6.2 and Standard 3.2.2 of the Food Standards Code to include traceability and processing requirements for semi-dried tomatoes. After receiving submissions from the industry and government agencies, this proposal was soon abandoned and a new proposal was discussed to develop a primary production and processing standard (the PPP Standard) for horticulture to be incorporated into Chapter 4 of the Food Standards Code, much like the standards for seafood, dairy, poultry meat and eggs.

Yet the proposal was abandoned in light of concerns about the cost and burden of a new PPP standard and the inability or unwillingness of governments to impose similar safety requirements on imported foreign produce supply chains that were to be imposed under the PPP Standard on Australian domestic primary producers. Indeed, alongside the horticulture industry’s existing food safety scheme, there were concerns the PPP standard would drastically increase costs for Australian domestic horticulture produce, compared with little or few requirements for competing imports.

New Zealand Fonterra incident report

The latest report by FSANZ in February 2019 seems to draw on some of the recommendations that were made in 2014 in New Zealand and implemented there, after a major food incident involving a whey protein concentrate that was also used in infant formula. Reports for the New Zealand government recommended better management of public messaging and co-ordination between the Ministry of Primary Industries (the MPI) and the police during the incident. Likewise, the latest FSANZ February 2019 recommendations mirrored some of that New Zealand report (the Government Inquiry into the Whey Protein Concentrate Contamination Incident (the WPC Inquiry)).

However, the WPC Inquiry also listed a number of further regulatory and non-regulatory recommendations. The New Zealand government pledged to spend NZ$8m and NZ$12m per year to finance these recommendations, including the establishment of a food safety science and research centre and the MPI implemented the law reform recommendations as part of their Food Safety Law Reform Bill in 2015. Nothing along these lines has been proposed by the FSANZ in its February 2019 report.


This is general information rather than legal advice and is current as of 2 Apr 2019. We therefore recommend you seek legal advice for your particular circumstances if you want to rely on advice or information to be a basis for any commercial decision-making by you or your business.