Food fraud being fried by innovation: TropAg

TropAg conference discusses latest measures to combat food sabotage

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NEED: Clare Hamilton-Bate reminds the audience that there have been numerous examples of food sabotage in the world, and it's likely that it will happen again.

NEED: Clare Hamilton-Bate reminds the audience that there have been numerous examples of food sabotage in the world, and it's likely that it will happen again.

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Plenty of work is being done by Aussie researchers to fight food fraud.

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FROM big data systems that allow real time sharing of instances of food fraud to plasma rays that zap nasty pathogens, there is plenty of work being done by Australian researchers and food standards managers in the area of food defence.

While the strawberry tampering crisis of a year ago is fresh in the minds of Australians, delegates at the TropAg 2019 conference in Brisbane last week heard this kind of sabotage is not new.

Clare Hamilton-Bate, the outgoing general manager of industry development at Freshcare, Australia's fresh produce industry on-farm assurance program, reminded the audience of the 1978 incident when Palestinian terrorists were alleged to have injected poisonous doses of mercury into oranges grown in Israel and bound for the shelves of European supermarkets.

"There were only 20 pieces of fruit that were found to have been contaminated, but it took Israeli oranges off European shelves for a summer," she said.

In the same way, only six punnets of strawberries were found to have been contaminated in the initial act of food sabotage in Queensland, but it brought about a flurry of copycat events, even on the anniversary of the first report, and affected many other fresh commodities.

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"It has happened before and it could happen again," she said, which is why so much attention is being paid to ways of managing the risk.

The initial focus for authorities was on supply chain traceability where they found the main thing to alter was industry's understanding of risk and changing practices.

The biggest lessons learnt were about people, Ms Hamilton-Bate said, and harnessing a cooperative response to eliminating a threat.

While it was important to give everyone ownership, that wouldn't always identify threats and so it was essential to have really effective crisis management strategies in place, she said.

Intelligent packaging, whereby tracers were put on food rather than what it was packed in, was one of the mitigation strategies Margaret Balfour, from Integrity Compliance Solutions, put forward as ways of dealing with the multi-billion dollar threat of food fraud.

Her wide-ranging presentation shared some astounding statistics - adding 1 per cent of peanut shell to one tonne of cumin resulted a profit of $350-$400, and an investigation by Oceana into seafood fraud that found one-third of 1215 DNA tested samples of fish tested in the US were mislabelled.

There are some commodities that are more susceptible to fraud than others - olive oil, milk, organic produce, wine and juices among them - and trends are often a target, thanks to the premiums on offer.

Ms Balfour said they had been finding lots of cases of watered down coconut water in the last couple of years.

She listed a variety of ways these issues were being counteracted at a macro level, such as DNA testing, which was costly, and by knowing commodity prices intimately to help discern the likelihood of deception, as well as frequent risk assessments.

At a consumer level, the best way to avoid fraud was to buy a product whole rather than processed or cut up.

Margaret Balfour lists some of the most common products susceptible to food fraud.

Margaret Balfour lists some of the most common products susceptible to food fraud.

Taking a whole different approach to the problem of food safety was NSW Department of Primary Industries speaker SP Singh, who shared the promising work being carried out with plasma to minimise listeria and salmonella contamination harming consumers and producers alike.

It has been developed as part of a global push to find an auxiliary treatment to post-harvest sanitation to remove pathogens, which would reduce reliance on chemicals and fungicides.

He said that while it had potential, there were still barriers to its use and commercialisation, such as its effect on shelf life, the nutritional quality of the product treated, and how it might look afterwards.

In addition, there is currently a huge diversity of methods and some treatment times weren't in synch with real world scenarios.

"We are finding it hard to quantify the plasma dose application," Dr Singh said. "And on the down side, it's an external treatment that doesn't treat internal problems."

The symposium also heard from University of Queensland Professor David Burt on genomic research that is sequencing various viruses to see where a host came from, to work back to a source.

He demonstrated the spread of Avian influenza from China, across the North Pole to North America and Europe via migratory geese and swans.

Describing it as expanding the farm to fork concept, he said all they could do at present was watch and record incidences but with the sharing of big data, the world could look forward to real time tracking and beefing up of biosecurity measures as a result.

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Fresh produce 'fingerprints' could help traceability

Speakers reassured the audience that data sharing meant they were able to manage food defence better.

According to Ms Balfour, ICS's HorizonScan had access to data from 96 countries and some of it went back 20 years.

"If something pops up, you'll know about it straight away," she said.

While cost was seen as a deterrent for smaller suppliers, possibly sounding their death knell for not having the money to combat food sabotage or fraud, speakers said it was important to bring everyone up together.

Open sourcing, where systems are talking to other systems, is more acceptable now, and Professor Burt said it was important that technology was available to all, so that a combined focus could be placed on the problems.

Jim Dodds, Safefoods Queensland, said that while there was a discussion nationally about sharing data and being in front of the problem, there was still a need to ground truth what was being heard.

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