Recalls on the rise: five signs of a lagging food safety culture

A  food safety certification and training organisation says the record spike in food recalls within Australia – up 45 per cent in 2018, compared with 2017 – is more than just back luck. It is likely a result of poor training, poor controls, and a lack of accountability – or a more concerning underlying problem with organisational food safety culture.

SAI Global has audited thousands of food retailers and manufacturers – 550 in 2018 alone – to ensure they comply with food industry regulations, and trains thousands of Australians annually on food safety through its tailored training, public courses and webinars. In the industry, it often identifies the mistakes that food businesses make in food storage, processing, packaging, distribution, display and handling. These are often related to the lack of skills and knowledge of food handlers, underpinned by a lack of commitment from those who manage the business.

Brad Costello, Food Safety Training Specialist at SAI Global, says: “Recently released recall statistics show that undeclared allergens, microbial contaminations, presence of foreign matter and incorrect labelling have been major reasons for the rise in recalls. In addition, dozens of food businesses across the country are fined each year for food practices that compromise customer health and safety – from poor hygiene, to failing to eradicate pests, to storing food at the wrong temperatures.

“Implementing a strong food safety culture is a mind-set change for most businesses. As it is driven from the top of the organisation – and can only be successful with the commitment and contribution of everyone in the business – it requires businesses to formally train their staff to provide an environment that supports a high standard of organisational food culture. Regularly evaluating performances and implementing improvements to make, store, handle, sell or serve food that is safe, should be a top priority for all food businesses, and is what we aim to achieve through our audits.”

SAI Global’s five indicative failures of a poor food safety culture:

  1. Not keeping hot food ‘hot’ or cold food ‘cold’. In its audits, SAI Global still finds that food businesses are failing in managing basic temperature controls. Storing, displaying or serving food at unsafe temperatures can encourage pathogens already present in some foods to grow, with potentially deadly consequences. For potentially hazardous foods including meats, seafood, dairy, cooked rice, and prepared fruits and vegetables, these controls have been in place for decades.
  2. Ineffective cross contamination management. Numerous food businesses Australia-wide have been fined thousands of dollars for storing or displaying raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs alongside ready-to-eat foods. Cross contamination can introduce pathogens, such as salmonella and e.coli, onto ready-to-eat products or undeclared allergens. This can be easily avoided with correct barrier proofing, storage controls, adequate cleaning and training.
  3. Incorrectly labelling a packaged food. The consequences of mislabelling food can be fatal. A couple of years ago, a child in Sydney had an anaphylactic reaction after consuming a drink that was wrongly labelled ‘dairy free’. The business was required to pay $55,000 in fines and costs. Already in 2018, there have been various examples of potentially avoidable labelling incidents. Labelling errors can also impact the accuracy of use-by dates: food that is past its use-by date can have too many pathogens or can form toxins, rendering it unsafe to eat.
  4. Poor staff hygiene and handling practices. Food handlers should avoid eating, coughing, sneezing or blowing over foods to minimise microbiological contamination. Poor handling practices can also lead to an increased risk of pathogen and foreign object contamination in preparation areas. Clean clothing, adequate handwashing, covering open wounds and a clean and tidy food production environment can minimise the possibility of direct product contamination.
  5. Failing to remove pests. Fines have been handed to numerous food businesses for failing to take reasonable measures to eradicate pests from their premises. Pests can get into food packaging and contaminate equipment and utensils. More worryingly, pets can transmit disease: rats and mice can transmit bacterial diseases, such as salmonellosis and leptospirosis, while cockroaches can transmit gastroenteritis and hepatitis A.