Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) released their latest recall data in 2020, which collected findings on types of foods recalled and reasons for recalls over a 10-year period.
The annually updated statistics on Australian food recalls help to identify issues in the food industry and find ways to stop food safety incidents before they happen.
Food recalls meant to prevent illness and injury
The number of recalls FSANZ coordinated has gone up from an average of 71 to 76 per year, but the recalled food represents a very small portion of the food available in the Australian market.
Recalls are generally only conducted as a preventive measure by food businesses to remove any potentially unsafe food before it can be sold. Only a small number of recalls are linked to confirmed illness or injury.
Possible reasons to recall food
There are two levels of food recalls
1. Consumer recalls
Consumer recalls are those conducted when the food has been available for sale in retail stores. At 86 percent, these make up the vast majority of all recalls from 2011-2020.
2. Trade recalls
The remaining 14 percent are trade recalls, which happen when the food has not been available for consumer purchase, e.g. with wholesalers or caterers.
Recalls are classified based on the reason for the recall, which include:
- undeclared allergen
- microbial contamination
- foreign matter
- chemical/other contaminants
Almost half (42 percent) of recalls between 2011 and 2020 were due to undeclared allergens, which were most commonly milk, multiple allergens and peanut. FSANZ has further broken down the undeclared allergens distinction into food type, with mixed and/or processed foods like snack foods, custard powders and frozen meals making up 31 percent of these recalls.
The prevalence of undeclared allergens as a reason for recalls prompted FSANZ to create extra post-recall report questions to help determine root causes and possible corrective actions. A report breaks down undeclared allergen statistics specifically.
Microbial contamination of food is an accidental introduction of infectious material such as bacteria, mould, yeast, fungi or viruses.
Microbial contamination is another major reason for recalls, the most common being Listeria monocytogenes, at 65 recalls over 10 years. Salmonella was next with 48 recalls, followed by E. coli at 42 recalls.
Salmonella-related recalls spiked in 2020, and were mainly associated with lettuce products, though a range of products including eggs, fruits, vegetables and herbs were the most frequently recalled over the entire 10 years.
Recalls to do with Listeria contamination primarily affected meat and meat products, as well as dairy products and mixed and/or processed foods. These sectors prioritise Listeria management and subject products to extensive monitoring and testing.
E. coli affected dairy products more than other categories of food. Fresh sprouts and fermented sausages were also recalled for process hygiene indicated by E. coli testing.
Recalls for foreign matter such as metal, plastic and glass — the most common types of physical foreign matter leading to food recalls — decreased over the 10-year period. There were 103 total.
Biotoxins are substances that are biological in origin that are also toxic.
In 2015, fourteen recalls of shellfish contaminated with Paralytic Shellfish Toxin, a naturally occurring marine biotoxin produced by some species of algae, caused an overall increase of biotoxin-specific food recalls over the 10-year period. Normally there are between 1 and 15 recalls of this type per year. Paralytic Shellfish Toxin and hydrocyanic acid were the most common biotoxins present.
Chemical and other contaminants
Chemical contamination happens when chemicals get into food. For instance, hand sanitiser can cause chemical contamination of food if it is not allowed to dry properly on hands and food is handled, leaving residual sanitiser on the food products. This type of contamination will often make people sick.
There were 22 recalls for chemical contaminants in the 10-year period, caused mainly by cleaning and sanitising agents or other chemicals.
Processed foods most commonly recalled
Many foods are categorised under processed/mixed and these foods contain multiple ingredients, which is the probable reason most food recalls — 143 over 10 years — affected these foods.
After mixed/process foods, fruits, vegetables, herbs were frequently recalled, at 72. The third-most commonly recalled food category was bakery products such as breads, biscuits, cakes and pastries.
What more recalls mean for food businesses
More recalls mean the system is working to protect the food supply. Beyond increased regulatory oversight, food businesses are getting better at monitoring for possible issues in their stock, and consumers are becoming more conscious of issues in food safety.
Before a recall, businesses can emphasise to employees the importance of being ready for a recall and assign responsibilities accordingly. Organisations can implement recalls into the corporate communications plans. During a recall, businesses must quickly communicate the problem to stakeholders and customers, decide on media messaging and develop a plan to reintroduce the product when the risk is over. After a recall, companies may want to monitor customer satisfaction with how the process went and keep detailed records of what was recalled and when.
Create a food-safe culture
A recall presents food businesses with the opportunity to create and foster a positive, food-safe culture. A good safety culture is one in which the business complies with regulatory requirements, complies with food safety and policy procedures, prioritises food safety and has committed management in charge.
Are you unsure whether your business fits the bill? Check out the AIFS Guide to Building a Positive Food Safety Culture to help keep food safety top of mind.
Remember: A food recall does not reflect poorly on the business. In fact, the opposite is true — acting on a recall advisory shows diligence and caution on the part of the seller.