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Recommendations made in strawberry tampering report

The government’s response to tampering of Australian strawberries with needles this past year was timely but areas to improve have been identified in a Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) report.

These include centralizing incident coordination to include relevant government agencies such as police, and improving the consistency and messaging associated with such an event. The report made and raised the idea of industry, government and law enforcement doing mock exercises to develop relationships and processes.

The report said all parties should review food incident response protocols and ensure formal links between regulators, health departments and police are in place for incidents involving intentional contamination and a body for the horticulture industry is required to support crisis preparedness and response in the sector.

An investigation found a complex supply chain with a need for strengthened traceability and contingency planning in the strawberry industry and other high-risk horticulture sectors.

Mitigation strategies to protect food against intentional contamination need to be informed by a vulnerability assessment which includes severity and scale of potential impact plus the degree of access to the product at different stages of the supply chain.

Mark Booth, CEO of FSANZ, said recommendations focus on the need for improved communication during incidents.

“The report’s recommendations, once implemented, will help ensure an improved response to any future incidents. These improvements will support our growers and ensure Australians can continue to trust in our effective and responsive food safety system.”

In September 2018, the first reports arose of food tampering involving sewing needles in Australian strawberries. Initially affecting Queensland, it escalated to involve multiple tampering of strawberries and other fruit across the country. Only a few were believed by authorities to be associated with the original incident with most hoax or ‘copycat’ events.

By the end of September, more than 200 food tampering notifications had been made nationally. Credible cases were associated with Berry Licious, Berry Obsession and Donnybrook Berries. Additional strawberry brands were named by police media in two states which complicated the response and affected industry.

“The power and use of social media was acknowledged as having a significant impact in this incident, both negatively potentially exacerbating ongoing tampering incidents and positively gathering consumer support for the strawberry industry,” according to the report.

My Ut Trinh, an ex-farm worker, was charged with six counts of contaminating goods and granted bail in November.

The Australian Government response included removing implicated strawberries from sale, strengthening penalties for food tampering from 10 to 15 years in prison, and imposing stricter conditions for strawberry export as well as industry funding support.

Australian strawberries are grown year round by about 260 growers across six states, predominantly Queensland and Victoria. In the 2016-2017 financial year strawberry production in the country was valued at AUS$560 million (US$397 million).

Risk mitigation measures include use of metal detectors but cost is around AUS$20,000 to $30,000 (US$14,200-$21,300) and tamper proof packaging could accelerate deterioration of product quality and limit shelf life. Deliberate tampering may involve physical contaminants such as glass and plastic, or may be chemical or biological.

Supply chain vulnerabilities are the many touch points from field to pack house, transport, retail and consumer, the seasonal nature of work and labour hiring practices leading to difficulties in monitoring workers and co-mingling as produce from more than one farm or supplier is combined.

Three complaints involving exported Australian strawberries were reported and investigated in New Zealand. Last month, the New Zealand National Party proposed stronger penalties for deliberate food contamination.

FSANZ will hold a joint debrief of the strawberry tampering incident in early 2019 to reflect on the event and confirm what changes may be required before presenting a report to the government.