Avoiding another 'needles in strawberries' crisis

Monday, 04 February, 2019

Avoiding another 'needles in strawberries' crisis

Investigating the ‘needles in strawberries’ food tampering crisis highlights what can be done to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Following reports of a man swallowing a needle embedded in a strawberry last September, production of strawberries basically ceased in Australia and thousands of tonnes of Queensland strawberries were dumped. Police right across Australia handled more than 230 reports of fruit sabotage involving 68 different brands, with many reports of copycats and hoaxes. The crisis prompted Prime Minister Scott Morrison to announce legislation to extend the jail time for anyone convicted of food tampering to 15 years.

The crisis only ended after My Ut Trinh, a 50-year-old strawberry farm supervisor, was arrested and charged with six counts of food tampering.

Now a review of the incident has identified several key areas for improvement.

After the incident, Minister for Health Greg Hunt asked Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) “to investigate whether there are supply chain weaknesses, whether there are actions we can take to assist the police [and] whether there are systemic changes which are required”.

FSANZ consulted with government and industry stakeholders to ascertain:

  • measures taken by food regulatory agencies, the police and industry in response to the incident;
  • issues identified by food regulatory agencies, police and industry stakeholders about supply chain vulnerabilities, response procedures and communications; and
  • recommendations arising from these meetings to improve current arrangements.

Where we should do better

The FSANZ report makes the following recommendations:

  • All jurisdictions should review their food incident response protocols — in particular ensuring that formal linkages between regulators, health departments and police are in place for incidents involving intentional contamination.
  • When a food tampering incident occurs across jurisdictions, a central agency should be engaged to ensure national coordination of messaging and information associated with the incident.
  • Police should be included in national food incident debriefs when intentional food tampering is involved.
  • Triggers for activation and management of intentional contamination of food under the National Food Incident Response Protocol (NFIRP) should be reviewed by the food regulatory system.
  • A representative body for the horticulture industry is required to support crisis preparedness and response in the sector.
  • Traceability measures within the horticulture sector need to be strengthened. Government and industry should work together to map the current state of play and identify options and tools for enhancing traceability.
  • Work on traceability should include collaboration with research bodies and other stakeholders to evaluate technical and innovative solutions to improve quality assurance throughout the supply chain.

The full report is available here.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/volff

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