Food Safety: Do we know what we are eating?

The frozen berry scare has left many concerned about the food they are eating and where it comes from. By Kirsten Braun

frozen berries

Frozen berry health scare

Earlier in the year over 30 people became ill with hepatitis A after consuming mixed berries that were produced in China from Chinese grown berries. The exact cause of the contamination has not been identified but hepatitis A is transmitted through contaminated water, soil or through contact with an infected person. News of the infection and the subsequent recall of the berry products prompted questions about how much we know about the food we eat and how safe it is. While the frozen berry products were marked ‘Made in China’ many people appeared unaware of the origin of the berries and are now calling for clearer labelling.

What do our current labels mean?

Even if people do take the time to read the label of a product, in many cases there is still confusion as to what different labels means.

‘Product of Australia’ and ‘Grown in Australia’
According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), this label means that “each significant ingredient or part of the product originated in the country claimed and almost all of the production processes occurred in that country”. So in the case of a packet of smoked salmon, the salmon was caught in Australia and also smoked in Australia.

‘Made in Australia’
This label appears to be the source of most confusion to consumers. The label means that the goods were made or substantially transformed in Australia (not just packed) AND at least 50 per cent of the cost to produce the product was incurred in Australia. It does not, however, mean the ingredients used in the product were grown or sourced in Australia. For example, approximately 75 per cent of bacon sold in Australia is made from imported frozen pork. These products can be labelled ‘Made in Australia’ as the pork is considered to be substantially transformed through the cooking, curing and slicing processes. 

‘Made in Australia from local and imported ingredients’
This label is a variation of the ‘Made in Australia’ label. It is common on products where seasonal variations mean that imported ingredients are used occasionally. While in some ways it is more informative than just ‘Made in Australia’ as it identifies the inclusion of imported ingredients, there is no requirement to state what percentage of ingredients are Australian or imported. Products with this label only need to contain one per cent of Australian grown products.

How can we ensure the food we eat is safe?

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources tests imported foods based on risk assessments and advice given by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). There are three risk categories:

  • risk food. These foods are those that are considered to have a medium to high risk to the public. 100 per cent of these foods are tested. Every type of food is tested, but not every shipment.

  • surveillance food. These foods are less likely to be dangerous to the public. Only 5 per cent of these food lines are tested.

  • food import compliance agreement. Importers can apply for an agreement that their food does not need to be inspected every time it arrives in Australia as its food management systems are considered satisfactory.

In the case of the frozen berries from China, they fell into the surveillance food risk, with only a small percentage actually being tested. Even then, contamination by hepatitis A would not have been picked up as Australia does not routinely test for hepatitis A or for other viruses. Tests are carried out for dangerous chemicals and microorganisms such as bacteria but what types of tests are carried out depends on the type of food. Fruit, for example, is mostly tested for pesticides.

Following the berry scare, FSANZ reviewed the surveillance category of imported frozen berries and decided that there was no need to change their risk rating. So despite being the source of contamination with hepatitis A, they will not be tested any more vigorously than before. However, there was a holding order in place for berries from two Chinese factories associated with the berry recall and products arriving from these factories were tested for E.coli and hepatitis A.

What can we do to reduce our risk of eating contaminated food?

Take time to read labels
Read the labels of the food you buy and particularly check for ‘Product of Australia’ versus ‘Made in Australia’ labels. Due to the confusing nature of current food labelling, some Australian made and sourced products do include additional labelling. For example, some Australian smallgoods manufacturers are now labelling their produce with an Australian Pork pink mark to differentiate themselves from other products made with imported pork.

If the product is not made in Australia from predominantly Australian produce, is there an alternative on the shelf? Reading labels takes time, which we don’t often have, so aim to start with a few products per shop.

Be prepared to pay more
Australian made produce generally costs more due to higher labour and production costs. For example, fresh raspberries can sell for $6-8 for a 125 gram punnet but frozen berries imported from China cost as little as $10 per kilogram (kg). Even the cost of similar products can differ considerably. Home brand packaged fruit in juice, made in China, sells for $4.60 per kg. A similar product made with 100 per cent Australian fruit sells for $9.50 per kg.

Eat seasonally
The majority of fruits and vegetables are now available all year round thanks to different growing practices and imported foods. Many people are no longer even familiar with what fruits and vegetables are in season. By getting back in touch with what is in season, you can reduce the need for buying imported foods. In addition, buying seasonal produce is cheaper, fresher and better flavoured.

Shop at local farmer’s markets
Farmer’s markets are a great way of sourcing local, seasonal produce. Buying direct from those growing the produce means the costs are usually competitive but most importantly the produce is fresh. In some areas there are even markets specialising in organic produce. 

Something fishy

Under our current labelling requirements fish served at your local restaurant or local fish shop does not need to be labelled with a country of origin. While some places voluntarily state this information, usually only if the seafood is local, in most instances consumers don’t know where the seafood comes from. It is estimated, for example, that two in three barramundi sold in Australia are imported from Asia but most Australians assume it is Australian. In addition, many species of fish are sold under different names in different states, making it hard to identify the exact species of fish. Improved labelling on fish is important not just so that people can truly choose the origin of the fish they are buying but also because some groups of people (i.e., pregnant women) need to watch the particular fish they eat. For more information and to join the campaign for better labelling laws for seafood, see www.labelmyfish.com.

Last updated: December 2015

© Women's Health Queensland Wide Inc. This article was written by Kirsten Braun and reviewed by the Women's Health Queensland Wide editorial committee in December 2015. It was first published in Health Journey 2015 Issue 3-4.

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