2015 – Australia’s year of food safety woe spurs Country of Origin Labelling & Food Recall App

| January 6, 2016

2015 has left Australian consumers concerned about food safety, with scares about frozen mixed berries, fish poisoning and undeclared allergens in coconut milk causing headlines. Michael Sheridan has developed an app that provides up-to-date information about food recalls.

It all started in early 2015 with the nationally publicised frozen mixed berry scare, resulting in 34 cases of hepatitis A, linked to consumption of the imported berries. Most of the berries were imported from China and the media were quick to point out China’s less stringent food safety regulations and practices. The packaged berries were subject to an urgent food recall. In the last two years the majority of food recalls were due to undeclared allergen, with microbial contamination following closely behind.

To make matters worse, the ambiguous Country of Origin Labelling (CoOL) of packaged foods with statements such as: “packed in Australia from imported fruit” or “made from local and imported ingredients”, caused a media and public furore. As a consequence, the Australian Federal Government scrambled to introduce better CoOL laws. Instead of non-informative CoOL statements, Government consultations culminated in combinations of graphical and statement concepts that distinguish the proportion of Australian ingredients. These laws come into force in 2016.

As the news of the mixed berry scare broke and the Australian Prime Minister was in damage control, Associate Professor Andreas Lopata (a food safety expert from James Cook University and my PhD mentor) contacted me and suggested we develop a food recall notification app. I thought little of it until the next day when I researched if such a software exists. To my surprise, there was no dedicated food recall notification app in Australia, unlike the USA, Canada, and the UK. So, for the next five months I set out to develop the FoodRecallAus app. Since its debut many media interviews have ensued and the app has been credited with national endorsement by Environmental Health Australia (EHA) – Australia’s peak body representing Environmental Health Officers (food safety compliance and enforcement inspectors and regulators).

Toward the middle of the year, tropical North Queensland succumbed to one of the largest single cluster outbreaks of ciguatera intoxication in Australia’s living memory. At least 17 people in Townsville were affected after consuming Spanish Mackerel. Ciguatoxin originates from dinoflagellate algae and subsequent bio-accumulates in predatory reef fish. There is no rapid diagnostic test available to test the fish for ciguatoxin, and freezing or cooking does not destroy the toxin. Unusual symptoms present in people who consume the toxic fish, such as reverse temperature sensation. We attempt to capture these types of food borne outbreaks, which are unfortunately not subject to food recalls, by incorporating in our FoodRecallAus app the ‘Food Watch News’ section, which is constantly updated from www.ausfoodnews.com.au.

In the later half of the year, from August through to November 2015, the Department of Agriculture & Water Resources, which is responsible for imported foods, was directed to test every imported coconut milk product for undeclared allergen. There was a spike in food recalls due to the compulsory testing of coconut milk products containing undeclared allergens from milk, and at least 19 imported coconut milk products had to be recalled. The reason for the increased surveillance of imported coconut products was as a consequence of the death of a 10 year old boy in 2013 from undeclared dairy allergens in a can of coconut juice. There was unfortunately a substantial delay between the death of the child and Government agencies testing of all coconut imports, and in September 2015 a nine year old child had an anaphylactic shock according to Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia.

Food Standards Australia & New Zealand (FSANZ) reveals that the year 2014 had the highest ever number of food recalls recorded for a single year with 76 food recalls. We anticipate that 2015 FSANZ food recall statistics will show a similarly high or even higher number of food recalls.

The FoodRecallAus app is available from both the GooglePlay and iTunes stores. For more information go to www.FoodRecallAus.com.au

An edited version of this article appears on the Nutrition Buff website and is published here with the permission of the author.