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Australia’s Food Recall Data: Learnings for Food Businesses

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) recently updated their food recall statistics for 2022, giving us an up-to-date view of the last decade of food recalls in Australia and why they happen. FSANZ is responsible for coordinating food recalls at a national level with food businesses.

A food recall is action taken by a food business to remove food from distribution, sale and consumption, that is unsafe. This means food that may cause illness or other physical harm if consumed.

There are two types of food recalls:

1. Trade recall – food that is in the supply chain but has not been sold directly to consumers (e.g. food distributed to restaurants).

2. Consumer recall – recovery of the product from all points in the production and distribution chain (e.g., food sold on supermarket shelves).

According to FSANZ data, 87% of food recalls over the last 10 years were consumer level recalls.

Why is food recalled?

Undeclared allergens are the leading cause of food recalls in Australia, followed by microbial contamination.

Between 2013-2022, there were 346 recalls due to undeclared allergens. The most common allergen types that resulted in recalls were milk (105 recalls; 30%), multiple allergens (61 recalls; 18%) and peanut (51 recalls; 15%).

Why do undeclared allergens matter?

While food allergies don’t affect everyone, they can be harmful to some people. Allergic reactions can range in severity, from gastrointestinal discomfort to itchy skin, hives and welts, swelling of the eyes, lips or throat, and, in most severe cases, loss of consciousness or death.

Consumers living with food allergies rely on accurate food labelling to make informed decisions about what to eat and what to avoid.

It’s no surprise then that, over the last 6 years, the most common root cause for undeclared allergen recalls was due to error being made with packaging. And (unsurprisingly) the leading way undeclared allergens were detected was from customers.

However, it is encouraging to see that in 2022 routine allergen testing was the second most popular detection method for undeclared allergens. This indicates that food businesses are recognising the importance of food allergens and taking preventative measures to test for them to manage this risk.

Food recalls due to microbial contamination

Between 2013-2022 there were 194 food recalls due to microbial contamination.

Microbial contamination is when a food ingredient or product comes into contact (normally unintentionally) with microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, mould, fungi, and toxins. This contamination can cause consumers to fall ill with food poisoning if consumed.

The most common microbes linked to food recalls have been Listeria Monocytogenes (70 recalls; 36%), Salmonella (44 recalls; 23%) and E.coli (38 recalls; 20%).

Learnings for food businesses

Food businesses can learn from these food recall statistics, especially when it comes to managing food allergen and microbiological contamination risks.

Manage food allergens appropriately

It’s not just the known presence of food allergens in end-product that need to be managed in a production environment, but also the risks of cross-contamination from ingredients. Cross-contamination can occur at any point – while storing raw ingredients, mixing ingredients, during processing or while packing.

For this reason, it’s important that food businesses are informed about food allergens and proactive in managing them. Here are some of the ways you can do this:

  • Request certificates of analysis from your suppliers for raw ingredients that confirm that no allergens are present.
  • Test raw ingredients for allergens to verify these claims before use.
  • Separate raw ingredients that contain allergens from others and clearly label them.
  • Schedule your production line so that products containing allergens are produced at the end. This will minimise the risk of cross-contamination during production.
  • Double check you’re using the correct labels before production begins, and ensure a manager signs off on them first.
  • Conduct a thorough clean down of equipment after products containing allergens have been used (this includes environmental swabbing).
  • Provide regular staff training  about allergens (including annual refresher training).

It’s a good idea to have these processes documented in an allergen management program, included within your food safety program, that outlines:

  • What role/position within the business is responsible for the allergen management program.
  • When annual training on allergen awareness will be conducted.
  • The “zones” within your production environment where allergen contamination may be a problem and how it will be managed.
  • How raw materials, ingredients, and processing aids that contain allergens will be segregated, stored, and labelled.
  • How cleaning activities will be validated and verified on an ongoing basis for effectiveness.
  • Documents your product testing procedure (as an added step of verification).

As the saying goes, “prevention is better than a cure.” An allergen management program can help identify risks early on and manage them appropriately to prevent the need for a costly recall later on.

Manage microbial contamination effectively

Microbial contamination can occur at any stage of the food supply chain, from farm right through to the kitchen table. Food businesses must be confident in the cleanliness of their food production environment, to reduce the risk of microbial contamination happening on their watch. You can do this by:

  • Understanding the microbial risks of your product and what safe handling practices should be followed (e.g. temperature, storage).
  • Knowing your equipment – what’s easy to clean, what’s more difficult, and allowing adequate time to clean and sanitise.
  • Using sanitizers and cleaning agents that are fit for purpose for your product and environment (i.e. food grade).
  • Having a robust cleaning and sanitation program that documents the processes and schedule to follow. This ensures all staff follow the same routine and there is a consistent approach.
  • Having a regular testing schedule of your product and environment. The Compendium for Microbiological Criteria in Food is a good resource for understanding what to test and how often.
  • Using a reputable NATA accredited laboratory for testing.
  • Leading by example and demonstrating that you care about food safety within your business. Follow food safety protocols, wash your hands regularly, wear the same PPE other staff are required to, and ensure they have the training and equipment required to uphold good cleaning and sanitation standards.

Helpful resources

Food Recall Training – a free online training course for dairy manufacturers on how to handle a food recall in their business. Developed by Safe Food on behalf of Dairy Australia.

Food Allergy Training – Provides free food allergy training courses for the food services industry.Allergen Bureau – provides industry best practise information, resources, practical tools, and industry contacts for better management of food allergens. They also provide free training for food businesses on Food Allergen Fundamentals.

Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia – Has information and resources for consumers and food businesses including an allergen checklist.

FSANZ – The FSANZ website offers a range of allergen resources, including labelling requirements for food processors and the food services sector. Food Standards Code – Standard 1.2.3 and 1.2.4 and 1.2.8 are particularly helpful.

Queensland Health – Provides information on food labelling requirements, including allergens. Their Food Pantry tool also offers a range of food safety training resources, including a course ‘All About Allergens’

Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry – Information for exporters on importing country requirements.