Understanding microbial risks vital

General March 11, 2020

By Elizabeth Frankish Consultant Food Microbiologist

Australian tree fruit growers and packers invest significant time and money in ensuring food safety through the application of good agricultural and good hygienic practices and compliance with the safety standards of quality assurance schemes such as Freshcare.

Improving these food safety practices and understanding the sources of microbial risks and the behaviour of food-borne pathogens across the supply chain are vital - both for the protection of consumers, and to prevent costly product recalls and devastating reputational damage.

At the recent Apple and Pear Australia (APAL) post-harvest seminar I outlined how we are developing practical solutions to navigating and understanding increasing risk management requirements and called on industry to support the development of one of these solutions by contributing data to improve its accuracy and usefulness to industry.

How well is your food safety management system performing?

Preventive controls including wash-water sanitation, equipment cleaning, personal hygiene and use of protective clothing are among the key factors in maintaining low pathogen contamination presence on fruit.

Validation of these controls to prove they are appropriate - and ongoing verification to show they are effective - are important components of a robust food safety system.

The optimum application of available controls and the appropriate verification needed to demonstrate their effectiveness will vary depending on the context of the system in place and the level of an individual organisation’s microbial risk awareness and commitment to food safety control, making it difficult to develop a one-size-fits-all approach.

Practices in the tree fruit sector are not standardized, so we developed a pack house diagnostic indicator tool that provides a snapshot of strengths and weaknesses in food safety management. This helps identify where improvements can be made to strengthen your food safety system.

Using the diagnostic tool, quality assurance staff can measure system performance, providing a benchmark against ongoing measurements that highlights the effect of changes and raises risk awareness.

To underpin the accuracy of the tool, we are gathering data on the effects of different orchard and pack house practices on microbial risk levels through a short anonymous self-assessment survey.

Risk assessment tools for pack houses

The survey findings will inform part of a microbial model to assess and quantify risk through the apple supply chain. By identifying the most important risk factors for contamination of apples with food-borne pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella and E. coli

O157:H7, the model will allow these risk factors to be flagged and addressed in a working environment.

Now that regulation of high-risk horticulture products is on the agenda of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), it is becoming increasingly important that each sector can demonstrate adequate risk mitigation of food-borne pathogens for overall supply chain integrity.

The risk assessment model will determine the relative risks from different practices. It will be easy to use and input real-life activities from the survey to achieve higher model accuracy.

The findings will be applicable for all tree fruit and will help producers determine where to target resources for the most effective control and the best food safety outcomes.

The broader the underlying data, the more useful the model to industry and we encourage all growers to take the survey.

In addition to providing data to guide the development of a model, the survey is an opportunity to learn about risk areas in your own operation.

It asks several short questions about your current food safety controls, microbial testing and food safety performance indicators, in the context of organisation and supply chain characteristics, to capture overall microbial food safety management performance in pack houses.

Further information: elizabeth.frankish@utas.edu.au

* For details on how you can be a participant in the survey click here.

* Funding and in-kind support is being received for this project from Apple and Pear Australia Ltd (APAL), Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (University of Tasmania) and ARC Centre for Food Safety in Fresh Produce (University of Sydney).

Source: None

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