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Take a deep breath and reflect on the hep A saga, suggests Richard Bennett

Photo: I-5 Design & Manufacture / Flikr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve given a few presentations over recent years about crisis management, starting with the need to prevent a crisis as much as possible by having the right attitude towards food safety backed up with the necessary systems. I put attitude first for a reason.

The next stage is to be prepared. Despite the best prevention systems and intentions, glitches happen and you might find yourself in need of a plan to manage the unthinkable. Good prevention and preparation will make all the difference to response and recovery. There’s plenty of evidence to show that resilience – the ability to bounce back – is almost directly related to how you respond, which is directly related to what you have done to prevent and prepare.

My presentations inevitably end with the observation that it’s not long since the last food safety incident that could have caused reputational and financial harm to a business, a sector, or indeed several sectors of the horticulture industry, including multiple businesses up and down the supply chain. And it’s also not long until the next incident either. Having recorded all sorts of incidents that fit this description over the last 15 years – about 160 incidents in total – it should be easy to predict that the next one will be Salmonella associated with a high risk ready to eat crop such as lettuce or berries. So hands up if you thought it would be USA stonefruit and Listeria, Yersinia and leafy vegetables in New Zealand or frozen berries and hepatitis A virus in Australia?

There have been a lot of claims made recently about our food safety standards in Australia: that our standards are superior to the rest of the world; that imports do not have to address the same standards; that our environment is cleaner; that all our growers and packers are certified to a food safety standard and randomly test product for chemical residues and microbiological contaminants, etc, etc. The politicising of the media coverage of the hepatitis A issue overlooked the facts: that not all Australian growers are certified; that the standards are there to protect Australian consumers and apply regardless of whether the food is produced domestically or imported; that testing is a verification activity not a guarantee of safe food; and that we all know business owners who have a less-than-professional attitude towards producing safe food 24/7/365.

I wrote some time ago about why Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) decided not to go ahead with a mandatory on-farm food safety standard for fresh produce in Australia. You can read that article here. NZ readers know that they are heading down the path of regulated on-farm food safety. The crux of the FSANZ argument for Australia is that the existing regulations apply to retailers, wholesalers, processors and importers, and that those so-defined ‘food businesses’ need to ensure that they have approved supplier programs in place. Hence the reason that it is ‘food businesses’ that require growers and packers to be certified to standards and codes such as Freshcare, SQF and the Woolworths Quality Assurance Standard, not government directly. If those food businesses had access to more transparent supply chains, there would not be so many growers who are not certified to a food safety standard and the industry risk of foodborne illness and reputational harm would be significantly less, maybe.

Back to attitude. You can be certified to the most stringent food safety standard in the world. And, according to commentators in the media, apparently we are, even though the same standards or equivalent apply and/or originate elsewhere in the world. But if the attitude of the business leader and his or her troops is to just clear the hurdle to get the certificate to keep access to a particular customer, then business and industry reputational harm will forever be just around the corner. The information we post on the FPSC website isn’t there to be alarmist – it’s there to get you thinking about your hazards, your risk assessments, and how to prevent and prepare so that you don’t have to respond and recover.

One Comment
  1. Scott Ledger #

    Richard, I agree with the sentiments you expressed in the thought provoking article. Safe food can only be achieved with the right attitude and aspiration. It requires a change in attitude from implementing a food safety program to achieve compliance with food safety regulations or customer approved supplier programs to implementing a food safety program because you want to provide safe food to consumers and good agricultural/manufacturing practices are normal business. We still have a long way to go in Australia and assuming that Australian produce is safer than imported produce is dangerous.

    15/04/2015

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