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Report on Emerging and Ongoing Issues - Annual Report-2020

​​​​​Introduction

Emerging food issues can arise when new concerns are identified or new information comes to light about an existing food safety matter, such as increased exposure. Ongoing monitoring enables FFSANZ to better forecast and predict possible emerging risks, and develop appropriate risk management measures as required. 

FSANZ has kept abreast of emerging risks (described as emerging issues) for more than ten years. The significance of this work is reflected in the FSANZ 2020-21 Corporate objective to be: a trusted leader and a source of wisdom on emerging risks. It also contributes to achieving our strategic objectives regarding stakeholder trust, identifying and managing organisational risks, and developing food standards based on the best available scientific evidence. Achievements in these areas underpin our:

  • ​statutory objective of ensuring a high degree of consumer confidence, and
  • statutory functions of providing advice and consumer information, and promoting domestic and international consistency in food standards.

FSANZ monitors, considers and evaluates emerging issues through a structured internal process involving senior scientists and technical experts.  Emerging issues are identified during the course of FSANZ core business or from other sources including the scientific literature, traditional and social media, international organisations and public and industry consultations.

Emerging issues are analysed by FSANZ to determine their relevance before recommendations are made to the FSANZ Executive on the best approach to managing associated risks.  A case-by-case management approach is taken proportional to the potential health and organisational risk that the emerging issue poses. Options can include: gathering additional data/information, maintaining a watching brief on the issue, providing consumer or industry information, undertaking targeted surveillance of the food supply, amending a current food standard or preparing a new standard, initiating a food recall or activating a coordinated food incident response.

Identified issues are captured on a register as either emerging, ongoing or archived.  Issues are archived when the management is either complete with no further action required or when the issue is referred to another process within FSANZ (e.g. food incidents, recalls or standards development process)

This report describes potential emerging issues identified by FSANZ in 2020 and ongoing potential emerging risks monitored during this period.

Emerging and ongoing issues in 2020

During 2020, FSANZ identified:

  • two new emerging issues
  • eight ongoing potential food safety issues subject to a watching brief, and
  • three ongoing issues to be archived.

The emerging issues findings for 2020 are summarised in Figure 1.​

Figure 1: Summary of FSANZ emerging issues in 2020


Emerging food safety issues

There were two new emerging food safety issues in 2020 - Patulin in apple juice and Precautionary Allergen Labelling (PAL). 

Patulin in apple juice

Patulin is a toxin produced by certain moulds that can grow on spoilt apples. There were several domestic food recalls of Australian apple juice products in 2020 due to elevated levels of patulin.

To date, FSANZ has not set any specific food standards (e.g. maximum levels) for patulin in foods as previous evidence has indicated that there are no public health and safety concerns. There are international food standards for patulin set by Codex Alimentarius, the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Commission.

The control of patulin in foods is achievable through good agricultural, manufacturing and storage practices.  Resources are available to assist industry in controlling patulin levels such as a Codex Code of Practice.

FSANZ is continuing to work collaboratively with state and territory health authorities, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (AWE) and the food industry to investigate the extent of the issue.

Precautionary Allergen Labelling (PAL)

Precautionary Allergen Labelling (PAL) is used to inform food allergic consumers of the possible unintended presence of allergens in food. Food manufacturers use PAL statements if they are concerned that a product may be unintentionally contaminated with an allergen due to cross contact within the food supply chain or via processing equipment at the manufacturing plant.

The Food Standards Code does not regulate PAL, however there have been public calls for regulation due to labelling inconsistencies and the potential risk to consumers with food allergies.

Based on industry guidance, the decision to use PAL is to be based on a threshold level (reference dose) of an allergen that would pose a risk to consumers. However, there continues to be a lack of international consensus on determining allergen thresholds.

FSANZ is actively taking a multifaceted approach to this issue both nationally and internationally.  This includes a review of Chapter 3 of the Food Standards Code - Standards for food businesses in relation to allergen risk management, leading the work of the Codex Committee on Food Labelling to develop guidance on PAL, and involvement in a number of collaborative groups addressing food allergen risk assessment and management.

PAL remains an emerging issue for 2021, and its status will be reviewed as this work progresses.


Issue

Management​

Antimicrobial resistance

Antimicrobial agents are essential drugs for human and animal health. However, the continuing emergence, development and spread of pathogenic microorganisms that are resistant to antimicrobials are a cause of increasing concern.

A previous report found low levels of antimicrobial resistant (AMR) bacteria in foods in Australia when compared with levels internationally. Importantly, resistance to 'critically important' antibiotics to human medicine was non-existent or extremely low in the bacteria isolated. FSANZ continues to work with other government agencies and researchers as a part of the overall Australian Government effort to slow down the spread of AMR.

FSANZ plays an active role in expert advisory groups (e.g. as a member of the Australian Strategic and Technical Advisory Group and Australian lead in the Codex AMR Taskforce) and contributes to the implementation of Australia's National Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy – 2020 and Beyond through a new project on the surveillance of AMR in food.  This work has been enabled through the Department of Health's 2020 new policy proposal funding. FSANZ will also continue to monitor global and domestic developments in AMR research, emerging issues and containment activities.

Arsenic in rice

Arsenic may be present in foods due to its occurrence in water, air and soil arising from natural or industrial processes.

The inorganic form of arsenic is of most concern for adverse effects in humans, so levels should be kept as low as reasonably achievable. FSANZ provided input into an analytical survey commissioned by New Zealand Food Safety (NZFS), investigating inorganic arsenic levels in rice and rice-based products. The survey showed that, where present, inorganic arsenic concentrations were low compared to levels reported from comparable studies overseas.

FSANZ will continue to monitor the latest international developments relating to arsenic levels in rice, especially rice-based products for infants/children. For further information: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/generalissues/Pages/Caffeine.aspx

3-monochloro-propandiol and glycidyl esters

Glycidyl esters (GE) and 3-monochloro-propandiol (3-MCPD) esters occur in some foods as a by-product of the refining process for oils and fats. FSANZ has worked with regulatory bodies worldwide to investigate whether these contaminants pose any risk to consumers. FSANZ provided input into the development of an analytical survey commissioned by NZFS, to investigate levels of GEs and 3-MCPD esters in oils and infant formula products in Australia and New Zealand.

The survey found that GE and 3-MCPD esters were detected in vegetable oils at concentration ranges consistent with those reported overseas. Concentrations in infant formulas for both contaminants were generally very low and within the range of those found internationally. This data provides confidence that exposure through the Australian diet is low risk.

FSANZ continues to liaise with international regulatory agencies regarding new data and potential risk mitigation measures.

Caffeine

Caffeine occurs naturally in foods such as coffee, tea and cocoa and has a long history of safe use as a mild stimulant. Products are also available with added caffeine, including cola-type soft drinks, formulated caffeinated beverages (energy drinks) and energy shots. There is currently no health-based guidance value, such as an Acceptable Daily Intake, for caffeine and adverse health outcomes from high intakes have been observed.

In July 2019, Minister Richard Colbeck and Minister Greg Hunt asked FSANZ to review current caffeine permissions in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, and to consider preliminary recommendations for strengthening regulations and consumer warnings in relation to caffeine powder and high caffeine content food.  The review found that pure and highly caffeinated food products pose an immediate and acute risk to consumers. Small amounts of these products can result in severe health effects, including death. Subsequent to this review, an urgent proposal (P1054) was prepared which resulted in a prohibition on foods containing caffeine above 1% (for a liquid food) and 5% (for a solid food). A further review of caffeine regulation, including sports foods, is planned for 2021. FSANZ maintains a watching brief on the latest developments on caffeine in beverages and food. For further information: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/generalissues/Pages/Caffeine.aspx

Intense sweeteners

A number of intense sweeteners are approved for use in Australia and New Zealand, however there are ongoing safety concerns raised by consumers with a particular focus on aspartame.

FSANZ's comprehensive pre-market assessments and previous surveys of intense sweeteners have found that there are no safety concerns for consumers and dietary exposure is less than the established acceptable daily intakes for each intense sweetener.

FSANZ stays informed of the latest developments on intense sweeteners, and is working with New Zealand MPI on a joint research project to review intense sweeteners in foods. A screening and research component of this project has been completed to prioritise sweeteners that may require a more detailed review/assessment. Steviol glycosides has been identified as requiring further work. A survey is now underway to collect and analyse foods in Australia and New Zealand for steviol glycosides. For additional information: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/additives/Pages/Sweeteners.aspx

Per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances

Per or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are compounds which were present in certain firefighting foams. These firefighting foams are no longer used in Australia or New Zealand, but the chemicals are persistent, and resist degradation in the environment. They are also bio-accumulative, meaning that their excretion from the body is very slow, which can result in concentration increases over time in the blood and organs.

FSANZ is currently managing a survey of PFAS in the general food supply as part of the 27th Australian Total Diet Survey (ATDS). The survey will estimate dietary exposure to PFAS for the general Australian population. Results will be used to determine the need for risk management measures, such as new or revised food standards. Publication of the 27th ATDS report is anticipated for mid-late 2021.​

FSANZ continues to contribute to the overall Australian Government effort in assessing the health impacts and exposure to these compounds.

For additional information; https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/chemicals/Pages/Perfluorinated-compounds.aspx

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) are naturally occurring plant toxins which are found in over 600 plants worldwide. Concerns have been raised about their presence in honey and black and herbal teas. The toxins may get into honey when bees forage on the flowers that are rich in pyrrolizidine alkaloids such as Paterson's Curse, also known as Salvation Jane.

PAs can cause adverse health effects when present at high levels in foods. FSANZ has worked with other government agencies and the honey industry in Australia and New Zealand to investigate the safety of the PAs found in honey. FSANZ continues to monitor international developments in this area.

For additional information: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/chemicals/patersonscurse/Pages/default.aspx

Diet quality indices (DQIs) and the NOVA food classification system

FSANZ reviewed a number of diet quality indices including the NOVA classification system for associations between diet quality scores and adverse health outcomes. We found that, based on the available evidence, all scoring systems gave similar findings. For example, people with diet quality scores in the lowest 25% in food/nutrient scoring systems have about the same increased risk of adverse health outcomes as people in the highest 25% of ultra-processed food consumption. We will continue to monitor the emerging literature on diet scoring systems and NOVA.   A summary of the findings is presented on the FSANZ website: Diet quality and processed foods.


Archived food safety issues​

Three ongoing issues were identified for archiving or management through other processes in 2020 (Table 2).

Table 2: Ongoing food safety issues identified for archiving or management through other processes in 2020


Issue​​​

Management

Salmonella in raw fish

Salmonella is considered a potential food safety hazard in farmed prawns/shrimps but not farmed fish.  Contaminated whole fish and processed portions can cross contaminate equipment and premises even if the end product is cooked.

FSANZ is not aware of any human health issues directly related to this issue and would view this as a potential emerging issue – particularly with the increase in consumption of raw fish (sushi, sashimi, ceviche, poke). FSANZ will continue to observe this issue and any future developments

Hepatitis A virus (HAV)

Transmission of hepatitis A in association with the consumption of ready-to-eat berries and berry products has emerged in recent years in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Canada and the USA.

FSANZ and the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) have jointly prepared guidelines on thermal inactivation of hepatitis A virus in berries. FSANZ and MPI continue to collaborate on the issues and are developing a research proposal to validate thermal inactivation parameters used by the berry products industry. 

Microplastics in the food supply

Microplastics are generally defined as those plastic particles that are less than around 5 mm in size. There is ongoing interest within the scientific community, media and general public as to whether there are any potential health effects associated with exposure to microplastics via the food supply.

The scientific evidence on potential exposure and health risks continues to evolve. However, our view remains that plastic contamination of the food chain is unlikely to result in any immediate health risks to consumers. FSANZ will continue to consult with our international counterparts on any new findings in this area.


Stakeholder engagement in emerging issues

In 2020, FSANZ remained actively engaged with stakeholder committees such as the Consumer and Public Health Dialogue (CPHD) and the Retailers and Manufacturers Liaison Committee (RMLC), keeping abreast of emerging issues and possible future risks that may impact on the food regulatory system.

Input from these groups in addition to the FSANZ Board from 2019 and 2020 have been combined and are presented in Figure 2. 

FSANZ will use these findings to inform future areas to consider in the context of emerging issues and intelligence gathering.

Figure 2: A summary of stakeholder input gathered in 2019/20.



 

Page last updated: 6 October 2021


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