Two years after being slammed for a slow response to the needles-in-strawberries crisis, fruit growers have joined an industry portal enabling faster and more consistent product recalls.

Such recalls have become a feature of everyday life in recent years, with contamination concerns affecting everything from strawberries and rockmelon to milk from a variety of sources.

Some 96 individual products have already been recalled this year alone and last year saw a record 697 product recalls, according to figures from Product Safety Australia.

The 87 recalls of food products last year, which are managed by Food Standards Australia, are particularly challenging because they deal with products with short shelf lives that move quickly from paddocks to consumers’ refrigerators.

Managing recalls of those products is complex, with producers, wholesalers, distributors and retailers often representing product information in different ways.

With produce distributed to large numbers of retailers both large and small, tracing it back through the supply chain is difficult and costly.

Heavily-manual processes often slow down trade recalls – clawbacks of food from distribution centres and wholesalers – and things get even more complicated for full consumer recalls, where suppliers must directly liaise with consumers and trace product through what might be hundreds or thousands of retail locations.

“Because there’s not a common traceability platform that enables us to interrogate and identify where a product is at any particular point in time, there is no connection to internal customer lists,” GS1 Australia business development manager Andrew Brown told Information Age.

“Often you capture [traceability] information in your database – but over time, those systems change and those records may not necessarily be quite as accessible or mean quite the same thing.”

The cost of food safety

Total costs can easily soar into the millions, with frozen-berry producer Patties claiming a 2015 recall after Hepatitis A contamination costed the company $4.4m in earnings, the destruction of $3.8m worth of berries in storage, $600,000 to remove products from shelves, and other costs.

A 2017 Australian Food & Grocery Council review of product recall arrangements found that 86 per cent of producers were more than 75 per cent confident in their current traceability arrangements.

Respondents “are generally well planned for recall”, the review found, with 18 per cent subscribing to the GS1’s Recall service, a subscription portal designed and managed by retail-industry group GS1 Australia.

Some 87 per cent said they run mock recalls at least once a year – an important test that that Recall facilitates.

With 2,900-strong fruit, vegetable and flower supply-chain body Produce Marketing Association Australia-New Zealand (PMA A-NZ) now onboard, the long-running GS1 effort will take another step forward.

Recall provides a standardised way for primary producers and other retailers to quickly convey information about product recalls to all participating members of their supply chains.

“Food safety underpins the success of the entire fresh produce industry,” PMA A-NZ CEO Darren Keating said in a statement, noting that with tools like Recall “the industry can achieve greater speed and consistency in the management of their product recalls and withdrawals, delivering safer produce to Australian consumers.”

Tracing the supply chain

The portal follows the lead of GS1 Canada, which pioneered the concept and remains in close contact with GS1 Australia and GS1 New Zealand as the Recall network expanded.

GS1 has over 20,000 company members in Australia alone, and works with organisations like Food Safety Australia that set guidelines for primary producers.

Using the Recall system, new notices are automatically trickled throughout the supply chain, with tracking and follow-up capabilities to facilitate the recovery of product from organisations at all levels.

The difference can be critical in managing public expectations around a food-safety crisis.

“Public perception is that they want the information as quickly as they possibly can,” Brown explained, “and that the companies they trust to buy their product from are acting in their best interests.

“Part of that is being ready to do this stuff when they might be called upon when there is a situation.”

Public trust was a significant issue during the needles-in-strawberries cases in 2018, when strawberries from a number of Queensland growers were recalled after numerous metal sewing needles were found in them.

Queensland strawberries are distributed across the country and finding – much less recalling – every punnet proved to be a massive logistical exercise that some food experts believe was handled too slowly and too inefficiently.

Copycat incidents involving apples caused further panic, highlighting the need for a fast and effective response around food safety issues.

Growing concern over supply-chain issues and recall complexities have driven some technologists to explore options based on blockchain, which promises highly granular tracking of products from the point of production to the point of consumption.

Australian trials have already explored the technology’s suitability for tracking Scotch fillet , almonds, and medicinal cannabis – but Brown believes it will still be some time before GS1’s membership is ready to embrace blockchain en masse.

“There might be a case to add blockchain functionality to what we do in the future,” he said, “but traceability systems are not quite mature enough to do that at this point in time.”