Fostering and enhancing food safety in the vegetable industry
In 2010 OzFoodNet, a health network to enhance the surveillance of foodborne diseases in Australia, reported 30,035 notifications of nine diseases or conditions commonly transmitted by food in Australia. Between 2006 and 2010, a total of 29 cases involved vegetables, with 510 people affected, 23 of which were admitted to hospital, and there were no fatalities. Food safety issues affect people’s perception of safety as much as their actual health or life. They have an impact on all businesses dealing with the production, distribution and preparation of food and for these businesses, food safety issues can have financial and legal repercussions and they can influences trade relations. Any business, including a vegetable farm, that supplies food directly to the public is classified a ‘Food Business’ under the Food Standards Code and must have a food safety program in place. Many vegetable growers and others who sell at farmers markets or use other direct marketing channels are not aware that they fall under this regulation. It is also not helpful that state based rules and regulations derived from the Code are inconsistent. Major retailers and processors require food safety certification from their suppliers. As a result, a majority of Australian vegetable growers have a food safety program in place. A less desirable aspect of this is that several food safety systems/schemes exist side by side and many growers must abide by up to six of them. Still, food safety awareness and systems uptake amongst small vegetable farming operations and some small operators in supply chains is suspected to be low. This can put the entire industry at risk. Data shows that vegetables eaten raw are the most frequent cause of individual foodborne illness outbreaks traced back to vegetables. Lifestyles and with that buying and eating habits are changing, and with it the use of uncooked vegetables. Also, consumers’ average food safety awareness is relatively low and responses to ‘food scares’ are often emotional and uninformed. This may increase the risk of foodborne illness outbreaks occurring in the future, and the impact an incident may have on individuals and businesses in the vegetable supply chain. Recommendations 1. Realise mutual recognition, harmonising and streamlining of record keeping and auditing by multiple third party certification schemes applicable to vegetable growers. Use the FAO/WHO hazard categorisation for fresh produce to characterise risks and align food safety requirements to risks. 2. Determine which critical limits used in food safety schemes need to be reconsidered or newly established for Australian conditions. 3. Foster awareness of food safety risks and legal requirements. Implement extension to assist growers and supply chain members from different backgrounds, growing and handling different produce that currently do not have suitable food safety measures in place. 4. Educate the public about food safety using appealing methods and understandable content. 5. Investigate options to gather representative information and data from vegetable producers without placing a burden on them. 6. Get useful information and feedback to growers about food safety and compliance performance; it has to help to improve practices and streamline systems.