Food Safety Workshop Hits the Mark

16 March 2020

Food Safety Workshop Hits the Mark

United Fresh and the New Zealand Food Safety Science Research Centre (NZFSSRC) jointly ran a Food Safety workshop in Auckland on 12th March 2020. 

United Fresh Chairman, Jerry Prendergast, opened the well-attended workshop and Anne-Marie Arts, Food Safety Representative from the Technical Advisory Group, presented the objectives of the workshop.

The aim of the workshop was to present current and emerging food safety trends.  It also highlighted the researchers in New Zealand that have expertise in fresh produce research.

Dr Cath McLeod is the Director of the NZFSSRC.

Cath presented a general overview of potential Food Safety issues in fresh produce.  Her presentation included the Annual Summary of Outbreaks in NZ up to 2017 (ESR Report, Sept 2019, prepared for the Ministry of Health).  Norovirus continues to be a pathogen of concern. Campylobacter and Yersinia cases are high in New Zealand compared to other countries.

The most common contamination pathways for fresh produce are:

  • People and hygiene practices
  • Water – irrigation, spraying, top icing, washing, post-harvest treatments
  • Soil and dust
  • Organic products (manure fertilisers)
  • Wild and domestic animals (including birds)
  • Storage facilities, transport and vehicles

Dr Phil Bremmer is the Chair of the Science Leadership Team for NZFSSRC.

Phil discussed how fresh produce becomes contaminated and the methods of decontamination.  The greatest risks of contamination are the Harvest, Packing and Storage steps.  He discussed the most common sources of bacteria on farm and in packhouses and that pathogens could survive for lengthy periods on fresh produce and the need to manage this risk. 

Dr Lucia Rivas: Senior Scientist at the Institute of Environmental Science & Research (ESR)

Lucia explained what whole genome sequencing is, what it could be used for and how it was revolutionising the identification of the sources of pathogens.  An example she gave was if there was listeria present potentially coming from several sources, whole genome sequencing could assist in identifying the source and allow the management of the problem at source.

The cost of whole genome sequencing is dropping and becoming more portable.  This is potentially the way of the future and will revolutionise how we monitor and track pathogen issues.  This practice is already in use in large commercial companies and will in due course be an important tool in pathogen management.

Dr Nigel French: Chief Scientist for NZFSSRC.

(Dr Cath McLeod presented on Dr French’s behalf as he was unwell).

This presentation focused on the impact of Climate Change on-farm especially in relation to Food Safety.  Nigel has previously presented these slides at the Fresh Produce Safety Centre (University of Sydney) in 2019, where the key messages were around Food Safety, Food Security, Climate change and Global Warming.

We are already seeing Climate Change in New Zealand.  This is supported by climate maps showing what areas would become wetter, and which would be drier.  Effects of Climate Change on New Zealand would include:

  • Increases in extreme weather events e.g. storms, flooding, hot/dry spells and droughts
  • Temperatures are expected to increase throughout the country with an increase in the number of hot days (maximum temperature of 25℃ or higher)
  • Decrease in severity of frosts and increased winter rainfall coupled with milder winter temperatures

The likely impacts of climate change, relevant to horticulture, are higher temperatures leading to drought in summer and fewer frosts and more frequent intense rainfalls and flooding in winter.

The impacts of Climate Change already being felt and will be compounded by population growth and reduced land available for agriculture.  It may be that horticulture is no longer viable in some areas and will need to migrate further south to have conducive conditions for production.

Anne-Marie Arts: United Fresh Food Safety Representative.

Anne-Marie provided an update on the United Fresh Sustainable Farming Fund (SFF) Traceability Project entitled “Effective Fresh Produce Traceability Systems”.  The lack of interoperability of Traceability systems in the domestic fresh produce industry was discussed.  Currently, draft industry guidelines are being developed that will explain why both internal and external traceability is important, how to achieve interoperability along supply chains and provide examples of how to implement such systems.  These draft guidelines will be available at the Horticulture New Zealand conference in July for consultation and feedback.

Graeme Fletcher (Research Team Leader at Plant and Food) and Nicola King (Senior Scientist at ESR)

 As a tag team discussed New Zealand-specific risks and research gaps.

Produce is a number one cause of foodborne illness with relatively little food safety research been done world-wide on it compared to protein-based products. Even less is done in New Zealand.

From 1998 through 2008, US data indicated that fresh produce accounted for 46% of food bourne illness cases.  Leafy vegetables such as spinach and cabbage were responsible for the majority of the illnesses.

What risk organisms are found in New Zealand fresh produce, Pathogens or Indicator organisms? This presentation discussed the gaps in information as viewed by the scientists.

Panel Discussion

Following the presentations, there was time for a panel discussion with Cath, Phil and Graeme to address the following question:

“Do we as an industry need to undertake an inventory of information available and develop a risk framework to help us?”.  The consensus within the science team was that the horticulture and fresh produce industry needed a more structured approach to understanding what the real risks were.

The panellists were clear that industry drives the research topics and we need to do a better job of understanding the risks in the NZ fresh produce industry. It also makes sense to have a comprehensive risk analysis.

 Anne-Marie asked the question How does the industry go about this?

Panelist comments included:

Each product group has different risks associated with their products. Look holistically at some crops for controls to be implemented. Adopt a risk return framework – looking at pathways and look at what would change our current risks. Mitigating risk at single pathway and all pathways – looking at working together to mitigate risk.

How as an industry can we get this started?

It starts with collaboration – days like today. Bring the parties together – is on the way to achieving this. A risk return framework would work well.

Understanding risk in the industry is imperative – talk about the risks then develop a framework.

This workshop was a great opportunity for the 50 attendees to understand the relationship between science and industry.  Understanding the science will allow industry to work towards incremental steps to ensure preparedness for change.  The presentations from the workshop are available to United Fresh website in the members section.  Login and go to to view these.

We will take the feedback from the workshop participants and presenters and develop a view on how we take this forward.