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Managing a Food Safety Issue

Fresh produce food safety issues are rare. Evidence, however, suggests issues are becoming more frequent because of the changing nature of how fresh produce is eaten (mostly raw/uncooked). And when an issue does occur, the ramifications can be wide-spread because of the distribution of fresh produce nationally and globally.

When a fresh produce food safety issue does occur from Australian or New Zealand produce, the most likely cause is one of the following:

  1. Pathogens such as salmonella, E.coli and listeria due to on-farm use of insufficiently treated manures and compost, poor personal hygiene of workers, ineffective sanitising steps at packing, changing climate, wildlife and neighbouring businesses, in particular, intensive livestock.
  2. Pesticides and residues from nearby crops and other agricultural production
  3. Physical contaminants, examples are frogs, spiders, bolts, wire.
  4. Tampering (intentional to cause harm) examples include new employees, casual labour, redundancy/sacking, change in employment status.
  5. Allergens through cross-contamination of the product causing allergic reactions.

By understanding the risks across the low, medium and high-risk spectrum, growers and packers are able to prepare for a variety of scenarios and minimise the risk to business operations and the industry as a whole.

Understanding the risk

Assess the risk of a food safety incident across the business to identify the likely hazards or issues and determine the worst-case scenario. Rank the business across the spectrum (eg. produce range, areas of vulnerability) to determine the most likely scenario, the ramifications and what can be done to mitigate or reduce the severity of the issue.

The risk assessment activity will result in the following:

  • Low risk: Review existing procedures and guidelines.
  • Medium risk: Prepare, review, plan. Seek expert advice and ensure records and procedures are documented.
  • High risk: Senior managers/business owners need to be involved. Government agencies such as the police, health authorities and OH&S depending on the issue. Industry bodies including PIBs and farmers groups. Identify who these organisations are and how each can provide support during a food safety issue.

Top Tip: Preparation, planning and practice can turn a high-risk worst-case scenario into a manageable issue. This article on produce tampering will provide some guidance and tips as a starting point.

Also, think about the food safety culture in your business. Do you have a question about the role of culture for your teams and employees? More on this topic can be found here.

The Media and Key Messages

When a food safety issue occurs, there is no requirement to speak to the media. However, if you do, it is important to have 2-3 key messages to deliver. Regardless of the probing of an interviewer, stay on message.

Key messages are also vital tools for employees and stakeholders along the supply chain.

Each food safety issue is unique within a business setting however some generic key messages (holding messages) are useful in the initial 24 hours.

Sample Holding Messages

  1. An incident (or an issue) has been reported and we are investigating the matter.
  2. We have informed the health department and our wholesalers and retailers of the issue and are working with them to ensure safe fresh produce to consumers.
  3. We are working with authorities and experts to better understand what has occurred.

Develop new messages once more information is available.

  1. We now understand the source of the issue and are working towards a solution.
  2. We are continuing to work with experts and our wholesalers/retailers to solve the problem and ensure safe fresh produce to consumers.

Top Tip: Stay on message and have a single spokesperson for the organisation.

Key Contacts

Create a list of organisations to contact in the case of a food safety issue. These include:

  • State and Territory Health Departments
  • Police
  • Emergency Services
  • Food Standards Australia & New Zealand (FSANZ)
  • Quarantine Agencies
  • Peak Industry Body/Farmer Group
  • Fresh Produce Safety Centre A-NZ
  • Customers and Suppliers
  • Food Safety Scheme and Auditors

Further Reading

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