Foodborne illness culprits: Melons, berries and leafy vegetables in the spotlight for FSANZ food code overhaul

By Pearly Neo contact

- Last updated on GMT

Melons, berries and leafy vegetables have been singled out as major priorities in Food Standards Australia New Zealand’s (FSANZ) move to formulate a new standard to manage horticultural products at ‘high risk’ of causing foodborne illnesses. ©Getty Images
Melons, berries and leafy vegetables have been singled out as major priorities in Food Standards Australia New Zealand’s (FSANZ) move to formulate a new standard to manage horticultural products at ‘high risk’ of causing foodborne illnesses. ©Getty Images

Related tags: Fsanz, Foodborne illness, fresh food

Melons, berries and leafy vegetables have been singled out as major priorities in Food Standards Australia New Zealand’s (FSANZ) move to formulate a new standard to manage horticultural products at ‘high risk’ of causing foodborne illnesses.

FSANZ is calling for public comment on the proposal to enact a new primary production and processing standard focusing on these three types of produce, with microbiological hazards considered the major food safety focus here as opposed to chemical ones.

“[An] earlier assessment of foodborne illness [found that] fresh leafy vegetables, fresh leafy herbs, rockmelons, fresh and semi-dried tomatoes and raspberries were commonly associated with illness,”​ said the agency via the proposal documents.

 “[Difficulties] involved with source attribution and determining the exact mechanism of produce contamination were also noted [with regard to these produce items].

“Recall data from 1989 to 2019 show[that] microbiological contamination has been the primary reason (43%) for all horticulture recalls, [and that] horticulture products were the only products implicated in national food incidents during the period 2016-2018.”

Between 2015 and 2018, major cases involving these products included three cases of Hepatitis A in berries, three of Salmonella in leafy vegetables and rockmelons, and two of Listeria in vegetables and rockmelons.

A separate study also found that between 2011 and 2019, foodborne illness outbreaks in Australia that were associated with horticultural produce had led to over 400 cases of illness and nine deaths, in addition to public health costs and significant losses for the relevant businesses and industries involved.

“For example, the 2018 outbreak of Listeria associated with rockmelons resulted in 22 cases of illness, eight deaths, temporarily closed an export market and impacted the domestic market with losses to growers estimated to be around A$15mn (US$10mn),”​ added FSANZ.

“At a population level, costs associated with foodborne illness are estimated at A$1.2bn (US$803mn) each year.”

 The agency is seeking public feedback from growers, industry, retail and the public until March 18 2020. Further instructions can be found here​.

Impactful change

Although the benefits of tightened control are obvious for consumers, FSANZ would still need to consider several major aspects and costs that the establishment of such a standard would result in.

“[From a government standpoint, we need to look at] the costs to implement and enforce a new regulation – but also at the reduction in government costs [to be gained] as a result of reduced outbreaks, incidents and illness,”​ said the agency.

“[For businesses,] there may be increased costs as a result of this regulation, some of which may end up being transferred to consumers. But on the flipside, there would be a reduction in costs [and reputation risk] as a result of reduced incidents and outbreaks.”

All three industries slated for change are important ones for Australia: Separate documentation revealed that in the 2019/2018 financial year, the country’s melon industry saw a production value of A$124.2mn (US$83mn), the berries industry stood at A$911.4mn (US$610.5mn) and the leafy vegetables industry production value was A$672.7mn (US$451mn).

Origins of the code change

The call to amend the FSANZ Food Safety Code to include a new standard for ‘high risk horticulture products in Australia’ was first made by the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation in June 2018.

“Forum Ministers noted the recent increase of foodborne illness outbreaks in Australia and agreed that there is a need to reassess the food safety risk management of [five] high risk horticulture sectors,” the forum said via official commmuniqué.

“[These are]: Ready to eat (RTE), minimally processed fruits and vegetables, fresh leafy green vegetables, melons, berries, and sprouts.

“Forum Ministers requested that FSANZ identify appropriate regulatory and non-regulatory measures for Australia to manage food safety risks in these sectors.”

RTE minimally processed fruits and vegetables were later excluded from the final report and latest proposal as these were considered to be already covered under the existing three sectors.

“[For example], melons and leafy vegetables are often components of RTE minimally processed fruits and vegetables (such as pre-cut fruit salad and bagged salad vegetables, respectively),”​ said FSANZ.

Seed sprouts were also removed from consideration in this report as the agency concluded that the most benefit would be gotten from regulating seed sprout processors and not producers, as including these in the current proposal would do.

“[Activities at the sprout processing stage] present the most effective point for risk mitigation for food for sale,”​ said the proposal.

“[The] community would receive the highest net benefit if only seed sprout processors (i.e. not producers) were regulated. Based on this and other technical information, the standard [has] explicitly excluded requirements for seed production (i.e. primary production).”

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