Microbiologist Elizabeth Frankish is undertaking a project to assist growers and packers to minimise food safety risk by developing tools to help better understand and assess where microbial risk lies. Here she provides an update on the progress of the project.
The aims of this research are to improve understanding of potential risks from foodborne pathogens through the apple supply chain, and the effects of harvest and postharvest processes and practices.
By characterising potential orchard and packhouse contamination and examining risk analysis frameworks, we will develop a risk assessment model that determines the production areas where food safety controls have the most effect.
Growers and packers invest significant time and money in applying good agricultural and hygienic practices and ensuring compliance with certified programs such as Freshcare. However, growers do not currently have the tools to determine the absolute food safety risks that exist either before or after quality control measures have been implemented.
As a result, there are gaps in our knowledge about what contribution these early production stages make within the supply chain to the final consumer risk.
If fruit becomes contaminated with pathogens, they are difficult to eliminate. Value-add operations such as fresh-cut processing are not guaranteed to reduce pathogens to acceptable levels. Prevention of contamination in the orchard and its amplification at the packhouse is, therefore, critical for consumer safety.
In the modern food industry, we cannot afford complacency about microbial hazard prevention and ongoing improvement in food safety.
Project activities to date: An observational study of orchard and packhouse practices and food safety controls has been conducted, providing the information to complete the hazard characterisation for the risk model. A gap analysis of risk model data is in progress which will inform additional future research. We have also conducted a packhouse pilot study of microbial contamination on apples and in wash water.
Preliminary observations: We observed variability in the application of hygiene controls and wash water sanitation. Data analysis showed no significant differences in measures of hygiene outcomes between packhouses, highlighting the challenges in interpreting certification standard requirements. Two thirds of packhouse wash water samples complied with the E. coli guideline < 1 cfu/100mL. Common to the non-compliant wash waters were inadequate use of an approved sanitiser and lack of verification testing. The prevalence of contamination on apples was low and we did not find a correlation between E. coli in wash water and contamination on apples.
Next steps: The next stage of the project is to characterise the food safety controls in place according to level of risk. We plan to draft a food safety management system (FSMS) diagnostic tool that provides a framework for continual improvement, helping growers and packhouses to meet their food safety obligations. The findings from the risk model undergoing development over the next 12 months will be used to refine the tool. We will also be seeking to workshop the tool with industry.
Project end date: The project will run until 2022, but industry will see outputs during 2019-20.
Find out more: Elizabeth will be presenting the findings of the project and the draft FSMS diagnostic tool at a Future Orchard event in 2019.
Visit the APAL website under the tabs Post-harvest/Quality/Hygiene & Food Safety to read Elizabeth’s earlier article on the project Reducing food safety risk in pack houses.
Funding and in-kind support is being received for this project from APAL, the ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Innovative Horticultural Products (University of Tasmania) and the ARC Centre for Food Safety in Fresh Produce (University of Sydney).