Taxpayers and growers are led up a garden path

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 15th April 2015
Taxpayers and growers are led up a garden path
Taxpayers and growers are led up a garden path

The Fresh Produce Safety Centre (FPSC), which is an organisation established with government and industry support in 2013, has announced the winning tender bid for the conduct of a literature review of fresh produce safety research.

The announcement has produced some skepticism from commentators about the whole bureaucratic process involving the Fresh Produce Safety Centre’s role in improving the current Australian food safety regime for fresh produce.

The principal industry sector group supporting the establishment of the Fresh Produce Safety Centre has been the Produce Marketers Association Australia New Zealand (PMA A-NZ), which is the representative body of importers and international traders of fruit and vegetables.

The major supermarkets and food safety audit organisations already follow and monitor their own very strict food safety protocols at all points in the supply chain. Commentators are therefore asking why it ought be necessary for the FPSC to be ‘reinventing the wheel’.

Incidentally, the winning tender bid is a team consisting of TQA Australia Inc, RMCG, and the Institute of Environmental Science and Research in New Zealand, in concert with the Food Safety Centre at the University of Tasmania. The project has the support of the NSW Food Authority, Pip Fruit New Zealand, Golden State Foods and Snap Fresh Foods, and Fresh Select.

Federal Government abdicates FSANZ responsibility

In 2009-2010, a process had been initiated by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) to incorporate food safety primary production and processing standards for horticultural produce into the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (Food Standards Code). However, the PMA and some of the major produce importers opposed the inclusion in the Food Standards Code of a set of food safety standards for their industry sector. Ultimately, the Federal Government relented and the FSANZ process for developing a new mandatory food safety standard was aborted.

The reasons given at the time for the abandonment of the proposals included: the fact that the majority of horticulture product grown in Australia is already grown under a food safety scheme, and that a better understanding of those products that were not grown under a food safety scheme was required before further regulation should be considered.

FSANZ proposed a collaboration between the horticulture industry and government – with suggested measures such as “targeted guidance, codes of practice, education materials and training” and better through-chain traceability measures.

The PMA took the initiative to establish the concept of a ‘fresh produce safety centre’ with government and industry backing.

Some commentators are now consider the whole process a ‘waste of time and industry resources, and taxpayer funds’, especially for growers, supermarkets and other operators in the horticultural supply chain within Australia.

New process “raises more questions”

Joe Lederman, Managing Principal of FoodLegal said this new process “raises more questions than it is likely to answer”.

Mr Lederman queried whether an industry Code of Practice concept would be enforceable against overseas horticultural growers. He also questioned whether the concept of an Australian fresh produce safety centre would prevent unsafe produce entering Australia even if it does not comply with such a Code; and that any Code enforcement could constitute a barrier to free trade, especially in light of the recent free trade agreements between Australia and China, and between Australia and other countries in the Asian region.

Addressing food safety increasingly important in globalised food industry

Margaret Balfour, Managing Director of Integrity Compliance Solutions (ICS), a food safety auditor for supermarket groups and other major supply chain groups, told Australian Food News that “the globalised food industry has created a complex, fragmented and vulnerable food supply chain”.

Ms Balfour said a “knowledge of incidence, causes and historical occurrence is widespread among food safety professionals” already.

“Being able to prove and trace the source of origin to establish the points of contamination or adulteration is critical to understanding food safety risks,” Ms Balfour said. “This can only be accomplished through improved supply chain management and software,” she said.

Such software and supply chain management systems already exist.

Fresh Produce Safety Centre literature review

The Fresh Produce Safety Centre says that its literature review will be focusing on sources of microbial contamination for fresh produce across general production variables, agricultural water, organic inputs & composting and the storage environment. It will also examine the interaction of sanitisers with fungicides.

The review will be completed by the end of June 2015 and information from the review will feed into the Fresh Produce Safety Centre’s review of the Guidelines for Fresh Produce Food Safety.