Recent food recalls have included flatbreads containing undeclared allergens, and contaminations to almond milk and frozen spinach.
A recall involves removing batches of products from distribution and grocery shelves to avoid potential harm to consumers. Food recalls are expensive, especially when they impact consumers and can lead to loss of trust.
Australia has experienced on average 78 recalls per year since 2012. And evidence shows food recalls are becoming more frequent, even if mostly as precautionary actions.
Of course, Australia has very high standards for food safety and regulators are constantly managing various risks. But can we do more to prevent allergens and other contaminated or spoiled food from entering grocery shelves?
Our Trusted Agrifood Exports Mission is working on ways to add further safety and quality assurances to Australian-made food. This includes improving testing for food safety compliance checks.
Avoiding a food recall starts at the source
Testing is often a necessary step as food can be contaminated at various points in a complex supply chain. Unlabelled allergens, like peanuts, soy or dairy, can contaminate food. So can dangerous microbes like E. coli and listeria.
Food can become contaminated due to a number of reasons. Production lines are often shared and many food manufacturers rely on third parties for ingredients. Additionally, food can be mishandled during transportation. For example, through inconsistent refrigeration.
There are also unanticipated events. In the frozen spinach case mentioned above, an undetected toxic weed was growing within a section of the crop.
Enter the RAT test for food
Safety and quality tests along the supply chain are an added layer of assurance. Similar to the ones we use for COVID-19, regulators can use RATs (rapid antigen tests) to detect allergens or microbial contaminants. But the supply chain hasn't widely adopted this test as results can be unreliable.
To improve accuracy, our protein scientists are working on a smartphone-based method for verifying test results. It works by capturing an image of the RAT result on a smartphone, uploading it to a computer and analysing the intensity of the test-line colour.
The result is a highly accurate analytical method that can confirm positive RAT results when required. Once fully developed, it could provide suppliers with greater certainty on test results.
The goal in future is to turn this method into an app so that producers can capture results on-the-spot and seamlessly using one device. This method can easily detect tiny amounts of contaminants, for example 10 milligrams (or 0.01 gram) of peanut in a kilogram of food. While the initial work has focused on allergens applications could extend to testing microbials and other contaminants.
Benefits of testing across the supply chain
If adopted, anyone could use this method to verify tests at different stages in the supply chain. It will allow them to detect and deal with an issue earlier, ultimately avoiding a food recall.
This would prevent any potential harm to consumers and reduce the costs to companies. It would also help Australia’s food industry continue to maintain consumer trust.
The journal Analytical Chemistry has published our testing method. We’re now seeking partners to work with us on the next steps to take it from the lab to the food supply chain.
The Trusted Agrifood Exports Mission is a partnership between us, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Meat & Livestock Australia. The Mission's focus is to digitally transform Australia's agrifood supply chain and grow export premiums across commodities.