Sydney Fish Market has launched the Australian Seafood Quality Index app, which provides seafood buyers and restaurateurs with a useful guide to seafood shelf-life at their fingertips.
The new app has been developed to help assess seafood from catch to consumer. Users complete a checklist on several attributes of the whole fish, including appearance, odour and texture. The scores for each category are combined to generate a Quality Index score, which provides an indication of the remaining shelf life for the product.
Setting a benchmark for quality control, the Quality Index assists in the management of seafood products for the food service and retail industry. It is applicable from point of harvest; through transport; auction; distribution and sale.
Sydney Fish Market General Manager, Bryan Skepper, says: “This app was designed to incorporate established industry practices and present them in a user friendly, modernised way. It incorporates best practice seafood shelf life assessment and record keeping in one simple place.”
Special features include the ability to archive files for further assessment, upload images directly to a Dropbox account and the capability to customise settings to meet individual operational requirements.
￼Jointly developed by Sydney Fish Market and The University of Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, the free app was funded by the Australian Seafood Co-operative Research Centre and the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation.
It is available for download on iPhone, iPad, Android phones and tablets, via the iTunes and Android stores by searching ‘seafood quality index’.
Food safety standards place obligations on Australian food businesses to produce food that is safe and suitable for consumption. Pro-Visual Publishing has released the latest edition of the Food Manufacturing Industry Guide to Safety 2015/16. This essential guide will assist food manufacturers in addressing and identifying key issues and other requirements affecting food safety, such as allergens, chemical residues and pathogens of foodborne illnesses.
In this industry, manufacturers must comply with the standards set by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), which has a legislated obligation to protect consumers from harmful food products. FSANZ has issued relevant standards that are absolutely binding for all food products manufactured in Australia. This year’s Guide clarifies the various standards that can apply in the processing and manufacturing of food.
Not everyone in the food manufacturing industry is up-to-date with the terminology outlined in standards. Fortunately the Guide has a section, which focuses on the definitions of certain terms. This helps food and beverage manufacturers to better understand the rules associated with determining what food products are acceptable.
Australia’s current alcohol warning labels are failing to effectively convey health messages to the public, according to a new study from Deakin University.
Researchers with Deakin’s School of Psychology examined awareness of the voluntary warning labels and the ‘Get the facts’ logo that directs consumers to the industry-led informational website DrinkWise, and whether alcohol consumers visited this site.
The study found that recall of the current, voluntary warning labels on Australian alcohol products was non-existent, overall awareness was low, and few people reported visiting the DrinkWise website.
“These findings demonstrate that the current approach of industry self-regulation is a straightforward case of regulatory failure,” said one of the report authors Peter Miller, Associate Professor of Psychology at Deakin.
The voluntary consumer messages on alcohol products were put in place in 2011 by DrinkWise – a ‘social aspects/public relations’ organisation, which is funded and governed by the alcohol industry – in response to a recommendation by an independent government review that all alcohol product labels depict a health warning.
The most recent audit showed that these labels are only depicted on around one third of alcohol products.
“Given that the majority of the Australian public support the introduction of mandatory health warning labels for alcohol products, and the success seen from strong, research-based tobacco labelling, it is time for the government to put in place mandatory, highly visible, black and white warning labels on the front of all alcohol products,” Associate Professor Miller said.
“We cannot continue to rely on voluntary industry-led measures where these important messages are being obscurely placed and take up less than five per cent of the product label.”
The study included 561 participants aged between 18-45 years, who completed an online survey to assess their alcohol consumption patterns, awareness of the ‘Get the facts’ messages, and their use of the DrinkWise website. Participants were asked about the series of DrinkWise warning labels, including ‘It is safest not to drink while pregnant’, an image of a silhouette of a pregnant woman with a strike through, ‘Is your drinking harming yourself or others?’, and ‘Kids and alcohol don’t mix’.
The results showed that no participants could spontaneously recall the ‘Get the facts’ logo. Around 16 per cent of participants could recall warning labels on alcohol products when prompted with images, 25 per cent recognised the logo and 13-38 per cent recognised the warnings. Overall, only 7.3 per cent of participants had visited the website.
Awareness of the ‘Get the facts’ logo and warning labels was also found to be positively associated with younger drinkers, increased frequency of binge drinking, consuming alcohol straight from the bottle or can, and being a supporter of warning labels.
“Our study demonstrated a low awareness of Australian alcohol warning labels, and a lack of consumer use of the industry-funded website. This highlights that while the DrinkWise brand might be a very successful marketing ploy by the alcohol industry, it doesn’t translate effectively into consumer knowledge or behaviour,” Associate Professor Miller said.
“Further research is now needed to evaluate the effectiveness of a consumer targeted alcohol control website.
“Information presented on an alcohol consumer information site needs to be evidence-based, useful and provide practical health advice. Currently, the DrinkWise website is used to create an impression of corporate social responsibility, but it does not promote evidence-based interventions and alcohol-harm reduction strategies.”
Ducting specialist Eximo speed LOCK has launched FoodFlex AS-a flexible, anti-static polyether-polyurethane ducting solution with a stainless steel wire spiral that is designed to be used in a variety of food manufacturing applications, where dust and other food product generated abrasives have the potential to generate static electricity.
FoodFlex AS (the AS is for anti-static) is translucent, has a temperature resistance of – 40° up to + 100° C and is designed to be used for the suction and discharge of abrasive and granular materials commonly found in manufacturing applications in the food and pharmaceutical industries.
FoodFlex AS is resistant to chemical hydrolysis and a wide range of food-specific microbes, is lightweight, non-toxic and food safe according to US FDA-regulation 21 CFR 177.2600, while at the same time, FoodFlex AS is permanently anti-static (R ≤ 109 Ohm), and conforms to TRBS 2153 to provide excellent abrasion resistance and good all-round flexibility.
According to Eximo founder and Managing Director Roger Marriott, the launch of FoodFlex AS heralds yet another successful chapter in Eximo’s 31-year history of providing unique and cutting edge ducting solutions.
“We’ve launched a unique food safe and highly anti-static flexible ducting product designed to provide food manufacturers across Australia and New Zealand the safest and longest lasting environmental protection solution on the market, while also helping them keep both their workers and factories safe and secure from static electricity.”
“Nothing currently on the market compares with the anti-static capabilities, technical abilities and rugged reliability of FoodFlex AS, and once again, we have delivered industry a cutting edge safety solution that will safeguard both workers health and company profits.”
DataTrace technology is set to be used for Australian export food & wine authentication, Security & Safety.
DataDot Technology Limited (DDT) says it is pursuing opportunities in the growing export food and wine authentication market through its newly established joint venture with Beston Pacific Group.
DDT and Beston subsidiary company, Grape Ensembles (GE), have jointly established Brandlok Brand Protection Solutions, and over the next nine months Brandlok will develop labels and other devices to authenticate and provide information on wine, dairy, seafood, health food and meat products to be exported to China, Southeast Asia, the Americas, Europe and Middle East.
DDT has granted an exclusive 5-year licence of its DataTrace authentication technology to Brandlok for incorporation into the labels and devices to prove authenticity for these exported products so that customers can track and trace the ingredients from paddock to plate and verify for themselves that the products are safe to eat.
Bruce Rathie, Chairman of DDT, said that the Brandlok joint venture and its arrangement with the new company BGFC focused on food exports to China and other markets represents a significant opportunity to capitalise on major concerns regarding food security, safety and counterfeiting in these emerging export markets.
“We have seen a number of food and other product counterfeiting issues especially in places like China.”
“This technology is a mixture of labels, barcodes and apps that can be used on mobile devices allowing them to check the authenticity of what they are buying,” he said.
Techs4Biz has developed a paperless app for food safety inspectors to make sure their inspection meets safety and HACCP requirements.
The mobile app takes away the hassle of lugging around packets of papers and clipboards and additional camera. The paperless app works on a variety of mobile devices (such as iOS and Android tablets and smartphones), and the speed and ease it affords saves all stakeholders time and money.
The new paperless HACCP inspection app addresses the various limitations of conventional paper-based HACCP inspection methods including the laborious paperwork that needs to be manually filled up at every stage of the inspection.
Apart from taking a lot of time, entering information in a paper form is not only tedious and error-prone but also confusing, especially when the inspection is being conducted in new sites environments.
The new app can help food inspectors use their mobile devices to enter data using pick lists or speech to text; take photos using the mobile device’s in-built camera; capture electronic signature; get real time access to reference material such as instructions, previous inspection history, and relevant standards (e.g ISO 22000); send completed report and images back to the office in real-time; automatically generate reports on the spot and send to clients; and follow up on required corrective actions.
Techs4Biz’s paperless HACCP inspection solution has been specifically configured to suit the inspection requirements of any type of food safety program including pest control, food handling, sanitation checks, equipment calibration, personal hygiene and many more.
Getting accredited involves investment and change, but for Hannapak, it was a no-brainer.
Independent carton board packaging manufacturer, Hannapak was recently certified with FSSC 22000 accreditation after a rapid installation of less than four months.
"We were proactive, we had dedicated staff and a dedicated team putting it in," says Ben Knight, marketing manager, Hannapak.
"There's been a lot of talk about certification for years with different customers, global customers wanting certification. In years to come we'd need that certification. We could have waited until then, but we decided to get in early and set the benchmark.
"The writing was on the wall that at some point during the future it would be mandatory, so why not do it on our terms and our timing and use it as our advantage and not wait for it to put pressure on the business?"
Knight says certification gives Hannapak an advantage with future customers from the FMCG category.
"We've got customers in the FMCG business that aren't even FSSC accredited, and they were quite impressed that we were."
Hannapak decided to go down the path of FSSC 22000 accreditation as it was one of the most globally recognised.
"There was definitely a level of investment to go down that path and there was a level of change to the factory, the manufacturing facility and the culture of the business," Knight says.
Investing in change
As part of certification, Hannapak implemented a number of processes.
"When you come through the facility there is no jewellery allowed and you need covered in shoes. That safety aspect is not just for your safety, but for the safety of the products as well.
"The equipment manufacturing practices is a big component of it as well, so the cleanliness, the wash-in, wash-out of the factory, keeping the factory neat and tidy and other processes."
Different areas of the facility also had to be rearranged or modified.
"A lot of the entry points into the factory we had to either close down or make them entrance points for a washing facility. We had to take a lot of stuff out of the factory, people eating, different types of drinks, café bars, that type of thing, had to come out of the factory. You can drink water in the factory and that's pretty much it.
"Culturally, people have been working here for a long time and being a community-based employer, we have a high staff retention rate as well. A lot of those people had been here and been set in their ways for a lot of years, so we had to supply them lockers, uniforms, and those facilities, the lunch room, so they had places to go.
"That level of investment has been logistical and then there's training as well, along with the cost of putting that accreditation in and staying accredited," Knight says.
How does certification work?
"It works like this: a consultant will come in and do a gap analysis and you'll get a list that you need to comply with and they help you through it," Knight says.
"They'll come back and say 'where are you up to with this?' And work through the process until you get to the final stage where you want to become accredited.
"Then they come through, they do that accreditation process, and there still might be a couple of things to close out. Once those are closed out, you become certified.
"After 12 months you have to be recertified and have an audit conducted of your facility to see if you are still holding those standards that were set on that previous certification. If something lapses, for example, you'll get a notice what needs to be fixed up, if that's not fixed up or closed out within a certain period of time, then you lose that certification."
Investment at Hannapak has stretched beyond certification, with the company also updating their technology and equipment over the past few years.
The highest level of investment has been in the printing and die-cutting process, Knight says.
Hannapak has implemented "the latest high speed printing presses with the latest quality enhancements on there, being the in-process inspection. With the die-cutting, we've put high speed die-cutting in with the power registered technology. It allows us to control the process and reduce board, which is not only cost saving but a sustainability piece as well.
Further innovations in the printing process include the in-line foil technology on the printing press.
Hannapak has been able to "convert current customers from traditional methods, to using a modern foil and also customers that were using polyestermetalites substrates. We've been converting them over as the in-line foil process, which is able to go through the post-consumer recycle chain."
"Quality systems is probably where the big focus has been in the last few years so it's investing in the equipment and investing in the quality systems that go on the equipment, whether it is printing, or die-cutting or gluing, so in-lines, inspections, code readings, in-line sorting, that sort of investment," Knight says.
"We don't focus on our competitors, we don't focus on anything else but what we have at hand, what's in front of us, but we have an end-game."
Hannapak is staying tight-lipped about future plans, but Knight says the company is "always planning for the future.
"The next 12-24 months will be 'watch this space.'
"We've invested in equipment over the last couple of years and a lot of that equipment is coming to fruition in processes and how that equipment runs. This year we have taken on some additional work, so this year we will be focussed on our customers, getting that work done and growing their businesses."
The Hannapak site visit was organised by the Australian Institute of Packaging.
The latest incident was preceded by other high profile cases including the Hepatitis A outbreak allegedly linked to semi-dried tomatoes in Australia in 2009, and the contamination scare that triggered a recall of Fonterra products that may have contained whey protein in a number of countries around the world, including China and Australia, in 2013.
Initial detection of the cause of a foodborne virus outbreak or food contamination is clearly an issue for the food regulators to review and address as part of the Food Standards Code.
These food safety incidents have also identified an inherent gap in the current traceability systems we have in the Australian food chain today.
To help prevent these food contamination outbreaks from reoccurring in the interests of public health and safety, we need to examine the learnings from these incidents and explore the opportunities for improving traceability and supply chain visibility.
Product visibility and traceability through the supply chain
Following the Government Inquiry into the Whey Protein Concentrate Contamination Incident involving Fonterra, The Dairy Traceability Working Group was established in New Zealand.
Recent reports released by the Dairy Traceability Working Group outline the most appropriate regulatory provision for the traceability of dairy products and the development of a code of practice to guide the dairy industry in implementing these requirements.
It is important to note that recommendations of the working group will also be considered for all food sectors, not just dairy.
The working Group’s proposed regulatory requirements include:
End-to-end traceability from farm to consumer using the “one up, one down” system (tracing back where product has come from and tracking forward where product has gone), with particular reference to participants in the supply chain having access to Recallnet – the voluntary product recall online portal administered by GS1
Future consideration of implementing EPCIS (EPC Information Services) – a GS1 standard that enables trading partners to share information about the physical movement and status of products as they travel through the supply chain from business to business and ultimately to the consumer. EPCIS is an international tool that enables seamless end-to-end traceability.
GS1 standards to protect the Australian food chain
To protect the security of the Australian food chain and the safety of consumers, the implementation of GS1 standards will allow for better visibility of product, up and down the supply chain at all times. By using GS1 standards, the recalled products will be able to be traced quickly and efficiently back to the source of origin.
Traceability is all about tracking any food through all stages of the supply chain from the source of raw materials, additives and other ingredients through to production, processing, packaging and distribution, including importation and retail.
Effective traceability enables food businesses to specifically target the product(s) affected by a food safety problem, thereby minimising disruption to trade and reducing potential public health risks.
GS1 standards exist today to encode data such as batch/lot numbers, use-by and best before dates and other product attributes at all levels of packaging from bulk materials to single produce items and finished goods.
Recall communication plan
Traceability is an important part of an organisation’s product recall management plan.
“Not having effective traceability processes can often lead to delays in actioning a product recall. This is one of the leading causes of incidents escalating into a crisis,” said Maria Palazzolo, Chief Executive Officer at GS1 Australia.
“The ability for a company to successfully track and trace their products through their supply chain and retrieve them from the marketplace is a key component to protecting the safety of the consumer and protecting the brand.”
The speed and effectiveness with which a recall is communicated to retailers and government authorities has implications for not only consumer safety, but a firm’s business reputation.
A detailed and well thought out recall communication plan is therefore an essential business tool for any company.
With GS1 Australia’s Recallnet, issuing a recall or withdrawal notification is simple, fast and inexpensive. Recallnet is a centralised online portal designed to streamline the management of product recall and withdrawal notifications. Distribution of a recall using Recallnet facilitates significant improvement in the speed of notification to stakeholders.
Based on global GS1 standards and best practices, Recallnet simplifies and automates the exchange of information between suppliers, distributors and retailers as well as government agencies such as FSANZ and the ACCC.
Implementing GS1 standards
Technologies including barcodes capable of encoding and capturing much more than a single product identifier through all points in a supply chain, allowing for greater product traceability have been in existence since 2005 but have not been adopted by industry.
Thirty-six years ago, Australian retailers adopted the GS1 System of barcoding and numbering as their preferred standard for trade.
GS1 Australia will coordinate a working group with industry support to discuss the adoption of traceability technologies to identify the costs and benefits to brand owners and the industry, and develop a road map for implementation.
“GS1 Australia has assisted Australian food and beverage businesses in improving their ability to track and trace their products up and down their supply chains by implementing GS1 standards,” added Mrs Palazzolo.
“We work towards helping industry create a seamless supply chain, allowing Australian companies to adopt world’s best practice supply chain management techniques.”
GS1 DataBar – The one little thing that will have a BIG impact
GS1 DataBar is a new family of barcodes that are an open, global standard, just like existing EAN/UPC barcodes. They have a huge potential to transform the way retailers do business as they carry more information than the current GS1 retail Point-of-Sale (POS) barcodes. They can be used on small, hard-to-mark consumer products and fresh produce, enabling a piece of fruit to be scanned instead of being looked up on the system.
In the instance of the recent frozen berries scare – if the finished product had been barcoded with a GS1 DataBar, the product recall could have been much more efficient as it would have provided greater visibility about which consumers had purchased the product and which retail outlet had a particular batch that may have been contaminated.
For fresh produce, GS1 Australia and GS1 New Zealand are currently working with the Produce Marketing Association Australia-New Zealand (PMA A-NZ) to develop a roadmap for the implementation of a more effective produce identification and traceability system, including GS1 DataBar, for produce sold as loose or in bulk.
Australian retailers began a process of upgrading their store scanning systems to accommodate GS1 DataBar in 2006. Unfortunately, other priorities have pushed ahead of implementing this capability across their networks.
An Auckland consumer found pieces of broken glass in her Heinz Wattie's frozen peas and corn.
Monique Peters said she was eating a prawn and vegetable fried rice meal when she felt something hard and sharp in her mouth. She pulled the object out and found it was a piece of glass, stuff.co.nz reports.
She said she was not sure at the time which ingredients of the meal the glass had come from.
Later in the week she encountered the same thing while eating vegetables from the same packet with her roast lamb dinner.
Peters said she found three pieces of glass in her food in total.
"I was really shocked," she said.
While she was not harmed by the glass, she said she was lucky she had not swallowed it without noticing.
It could have been a different story if a child was eating the vegetables, she said.
"It was quite sharp, quite raggedy and quite large," she said, adding she had been put off eating frozen vegetables for a while.
The Coatesville woman contacted Heinz Wattie's, which thanked her for bringing the issue to its attention and asked her to send the glass to them.
Peters said the company seemed "a little bit relaxed".
"I definitely felt a little bit angry last night," she said.
Heinz Wattie's spokesman Paul Hemsley said the company took such reports "extremely seriously".
A full investigation was already underway and the packaging and "foreign objects" would be collected on Friday (20 March).
The investigation would look at when each of the ingredients was harvested and processed, and when they were packaged for sale.
"Because there is specialised equipment for detecting foreign objects on the processing lines for these ingredients as well as manual observation, there is obviously some surprise at the presence of such items, but the investigation will be full and thorough, and nothing will be ruled out," he said.
"At this stage we can only apologise to the consumer, and thank her for reporting the matter…Thankfully such reported incidents are rare."
While it may represent an additional cost for manufacturers, ensuring your packaging has a tamper-evident design is a safe move.
Packaging security is critical to food, for keeping food fresh as well as safe to eat. Packaging security can protect against everything from consumer tampering to bioterrorism to product counterfeiting.
Definition of tamper-evident packaging
Packaging having an indicator or barrier to entry which, if breached or missing, can reasonably be expected to provide visible or audible evidence to consumers that tampering has occurred.
Tamper evidence in packaging
Tampering involves the intentional altering of information, a product, a package, or system. Solutions may involve all phases of product production, distribution, logistics, sale, and use. No single solution can be considered as ‘tamper proof’. Most times many levels of security need to be considered to minimise the risk of tampering.
Some considerations are:
• Identify all feasible methods of unauthorised access into a product or package. In addition to the primary means of entry, also consider secondary or ‘back door’ methods.
Identify type of tampering, what level of knowledge, materials or equipment.
Improve the tamper resistance by making tampering more difficult.
Add tamper-evident features to help indicate the existence of tampering.
Educate consumers to be aware of tampering.
Ensure that the window of opportunity to tamper is minimised.
Ensure that the time available for tampering is decreased.
Tamper-evident design is possibly most visible in product packaging and labelling, where it can be critical to know that the product has not been modified since leaving the manufacturer.
Cans of baby food were among the first cases, where manufacturers were extorted by persons claiming to have added various poisons to baby food and replaced them on supermarket shelves. The threat of public fear meant that tamper-evident design principles had the potential to save a lot of money in the future.
Jars of food items soon started appearing with a metal bubble-top lid, commonly known as a ‘safety button’, which popped out if the jar had been opened and stayed flat if the jar was not ever opened. Customers were advised not to buy a product with a popped lid.
Newer jars of food tend to come with a plastic shrink-sleeve on the edge of the lid, which is removed when opening.
The Johnson & Johnson Tylenol crisis of 1982 involved over-the-counter medications. Due to various regulations, many manufacturers of food (and medicine) now use induction sealing to assist in providing evidence of tampering. Packaging that tears open in a ragged manner or otherwise cannot be resealed is also used to help indicate tampering.
In many cases, multiple layers or indicators are used because no single layer or device is ‘tamper-proof’. Consideration should be given to unique indicators (which are to be changed regularly to avoid counterfeiting).
End-users and consumers need to be educated to keep an eye open for signs of tampering, both at the primary and at secondary levels of packaging.
Track and trace
Processors and their suppliers are developing a variety of packaging technologies to keep food safe from such interference and to provide fast, thorough product tracking and tracing in the event of a recall.
Covert and overt packaging techniques are developing more and more and becoming substantially more sophisticated. Covert techniques require a scanner or other device for detection. Marking packages with invisible, ultraviolet-luminescent ink is an example of covert security. Overt refers to something visible on the package, such as a batch code or tamper-evident bands.
RFID tags as a form of tamper evidence
The radio frequency identification (RFID) tags consist of a tamper-evident technology to ensure that the RFID tag has not been interfered with after initial positioning on an article. These tags, if tampered with, become disabled, thereby preventing use of the tags on counterfeit or substitute products, and ensuring that detecting a working tag also means identifying the original product to which it is attached. As food and beverage companies increasingly experiment with RFID to satisfy retailer demands, they are enjoying the side benefit of greater control of cases and pallets moving through the supply chain. The heightened control increases the security of products during distribution.
A fundamental reason to incorporate security features into packaging is to provide protection against vindictive tampering, or at least evidence of an attempt. Tamper-evident packages typically show visible signs of interfering, such as a broken seal.
The time has come for us to commence placing tamper evidence onto any product that touches the body and is ingested, inhaled or absorbed into the blood stream.
Pierre Pienaar is education director at the Australian Institute of Packaging (AIP).
New Zealand sausage maker Premier Beehive recalled four types of sausage from NZ shops after plastic was found in them by an Auckland consumer.
Stuff.co.nz reports that the affected products were various types of pork sausages. The pork arrived at the company’s plant in Carterton on the North Island, wrapped in plastic. Some of this remained stuck to the meat and was minced along with the meat.
"We immediately went into investigation mode once we received the complaint from the customer this week and I'm pleased to say we haven't had any more. We thought it was in the best interests of the customers and the brand," Premier Beehive Managing director John Kippenberger said.
He added that the affected products have been removed from shelves and the company hopes to have new products available in stores by Wednesday next week.
Pro-Visual Publishing has released its newest edition of the Food Manufacturing Industry Guide to Safety 2014/15.
This guide aims to address all aspects of the food manufacturing industry, ensuring that employers and employees are maintaining a safe and healthy workplace, and was created in collaboration with the Australian Food Microbiology,
This year’s edition focuses on maintaining a clean and sterile work environment so contamination does not occur. It also highlights the roles and responsibilities of food businesses and government during a food recall, key steps involved in the process; vital elements of a food recall plan, and the legal requirements and obligations for food businesses.
“I would like to thank all of the sponsors of the Food Manufacturing Industry Guide to Safety 2014/15. Their support has made it possible for the guide to be distributed free of charge” – John Hutchings, CEO, Pro-Visual Publishing.
The topic of releasing genetically modified (GM) products into food and the environment is highly polarised. But are we making any progress with it?
The debate is now so vicious and impatient that to have any engagement is taken as permission by others to tell you that you are “pro” or “anti” everything that has to do with these products, even extending to accusations of your support for the science behind them.
But a 2013 report Where there is smoke, is there fire? Responding to the results of alarming studies on the safety of GMOs, by the Dutch Commission on Genetic Modification (COGEM), is an interesting divergence from the routine.
COGEM, a statutory advisory body of scientists created to provide advice to government on GM, makes nine major recommendations on how to better support the work of, and trust in, GMO safety regulators.
I am sceptical about some of the recommendations, and about singling out certain papers by name as “alarming”, while apparently neglecting that others might one day turn out to be wrongly overconfident about safety. Those caveats aside, three of its recommendations could be helpful for (re)building trust in regulation of biotechnology products.
Three key recommendations
I evaluate what I believe to be three important recommendations as a single “package” because only taken together could they hope to restore or improve public trust and reduce polarisation.
carry out random repeat studies or supervised inspections of GMO safety studies by companies
ensure in-house knowledge and competences in specific areas of science and science communication within the ministries
promote scientific research into the safety of GMOs by making it more attractive for researchers to carry out counter-studies and repeat studies (for example through the provision of funding and access to research materials)
There are two ways that the capacity for repeating or overseeing industry studies could be developed. One way is in the regulatory agency itself, the other in the scientific community.
Regardless of the strategy chosen, the cost should be borne by the party that expects to make the profit and without creating any sense of entitlement for meeting those costs.
The capacity for independently repeating GMO safety studies is rare or extinct in most countries. As COGEM correctly states in its report:
The regulator, such as Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) or New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), does not demonstrate the safety of the products it regulates. It endorses (or rejects) the claims of safety made by those developing the products. That makes the recommendation to carry out random repeat studies for GM products a significant departure from what happens now.
If the regulator were to carry out such studies as part of the risk assessment, it would mean that “in-house knowledge and competences” were not just based on ability to evaluate scientific studies, but extended to the design, conduct and defence of experiments capable of challenging or critically confirming the safety studies now solely supplied by those seeking regulatory approval.
Building the capacity for risk assessment
In complying with the recommendations, governments might choose instead to outsource the science to public sector laboratories. That way any study – whether it was evidence of safety or of harm – could be put to the test.
In doing so, they would contribute to the third COGEM recommendation which is to build capacity in the wider scientific community to conduct such studies.
If this were the strategy chosen, then the testing laboratories could neither benefit from the product under test nor from finding a harm. They also need to be protected from legal challenges by developers.
Those who would be conducting these experiments must have the reasonable expectation of a productive career regardless of what they may find. This is more problematic than it might seem.
Many funding bodies have mixed the objectives of science and innovation through intellectual property licensing. Even where non-commercial public-minded science is funded, it is at levels that a research scientist cannot count on to continuously support his or her work.
The COGEM recommendation exposes a systemic erosion of public capacity to independently challenge or affirm commercial science.
To enact the third recommendation is potentially revolutionary in that it requires substantive rethinking of how we support the non-entrepreneurial but creative, spirited, dedicated, ambitious and accomplished scientist and the institution in which they work.
Different standards of evidence review
Different standards of evidence gathering are applied to scientific and regulatory work. These are acknowledged by COGEM, but not explicitly evaluated. That is an important omission for a report seeking to find ways forward in regulation of controversial technological products.
The common high standard of peer-review in research is blind (or anonymous) peer review. The characteristics of a blind system are that the authors must convince an impartial editor that they have fully and properly addressed criticisms made by expert peers who are free to be frank because their identity is protected.
The standard practice used by regulators on their own decisions is to place themselves in the position of editor, choosing who will review their findings and whether, or how, to respond to any criticisms.
The standard practice used to approve new technological products is different still, as COGEM’s report explains:
Applications for marketing authorisation of GM crops also contain unpublished and non-peer-reviewed information, which suggests that different criteria apply to different stakeholders […] the studies submitted in support of permit applications also undergo a type of review in the form of appraisals by the competent authorities and advisory bodies.
The regulator does act as a sort of referee of applications because it can ask for more information or call for new experiments within the limits of the regulator’s governing legislation.
Nevertheless, this and other similar review systems in common use are less stringent types of review than most research journals use. This is because the reviewer is not anonymous (and therefore not fully protected) and the materials needed to replicate the developer’s experiments are not automatically available to those wanting to verify their findings. Where such materials are made available, it is by ad hoc and limited arrangements based on where you live or where you work.
Standards of decision-making
An irony in the way these different peer-review systems are applied is that the less potential impact a decision is likely to have on the general public the greater the stringency of review.
Scientific papers published in journals have no legal standing. They cannot compel someone to do, sell or use something. In contrast, regulatory decisions determine what products and potential harms and benefits people will experience from products.
In its report, COGEM states that:
In the natural sciences a single publication is usually insufficient to convince other scientists of the validity of a claim.
Yet unpublished work from developers are used to make regulatory decisions that affect what we put in our bodies.
COGEM also observes that it “is not possible to determine immediately whether the results [of an ‘alarming study’] are valid or not, and so the value of the results will have to be investigated”.
Likewise, it is not possible to determine immediately whether the results of a “reassuring study” are valid or not without further investigation and replication. This double standard is routine for regulators.
Recommendations needed to address underlying issues of distrust
Adopting these three COGEM recommendations, and implementing them fastidiously, would significantly build the trust relationship between society, government and private enterprise.
The COGEM recommendations might be criticised for being heavy-handed and bureaucratic. Implementation may select for ever more clever ways to subvert the system. Alternatively, implementation may cause a transition toward a developer-regulator interface that delivers the desired trust.
COGEM’s standing may help governments to rethink how they are regulating new products. They will have to resist considerable pressure from those who would prefer both reduced regulation on new technologies and less accountability. I believe that good regulation can pay for itself in public safety, sector confidence and public trust.
Nothing less ambitious than enthusiastic and uncompromised implementation of these key recommendations is likely to advance both trust in new technologies and ensure the creation of good technologies. If the COGEM strategy worked for GM, which invokes such passion in so many, then it would likely work for many kinds of new technologies and products.
Jack Heinemann receives funding mainly from government funding bodies. He also has accepted some funding from for-profit, philanthropic and NGO sources. He works in a public university, does research using genetic engineering and has a research interest in the safety of GMOs.
The affected batch number is 40727482A2, and Stephen Voordouw, general manager at Aspen Nutritionals Australia, said consumers can have confidence that other S-26 products are safe for consumption.
“From our discussion with the complainant we have confirmed that the product can, its contents and packaging will be returned to the NSW Food Authority. It will then be thoroughly tested as a matter of urgency in an independent laboratory here in Australia, and also at the manufacturing site,” he said.
“In the meantime, as a precaution, we are withdrawing only the affected batch from the trade. Other products in the S-26 range are not affected.”
Voordouw added that no previous complaints of this type have been made and that the formula is made in a plant that is fully compliant with global and Australian quality standards.
“We sincerely apologise for any inconvenience this voluntary batch withdrawal may cause. In the meantime, an alternative batch of S-26 Original Progress will be distributed from our warehouse today (14 July) and should be available in most retail outlets by the end of the week,” said Voordouw.
A Sydney mother has suggested that S-26 should recall a batch of its infant formula after she discovered a dead lizard in a newly purchased tin.
Artilina Castanares opened the new tin on Friday and discovered the dead lizard, then immediately contacted the company’s head office, Aspen Australia, which advised her that a response could take six to eight weeks, the SMH reports.
“I’m in shock,” Castanares said. "You don’t take any risk when it comes to our children. In the meantime, you would be recalling the product or at least that batch.”
The S-26 Original Process formula is made and packaged in Singapore.
Next generation automated technology is providing an innovative solution to critical issues facing many small food manufacturers, while also streamlining the production cycle to boost safety and efficiency.
A new generation of lightweight robots means small food manufacturers in Australia can now enjoy the benefits of automation, previously only available to larger organisations. Many small businesses are turning to robotic technology to transform the entire lifecycle of the food manufacturing process. In fact, the recent interest by small food manufacturers has pushed Australian robotic purchases to record highs.
Through the implementation of new lightweight and compact robots, food manufacturers are now able to build a modern manufacturing workplace – automating industrial processes and upgrading the labour force to operate machines instead of having staff perform monotonous and repetitive manual tasks.
Man or machine
Industrial robots have long excelled at the kind of manually repetitive tasks that employees can find undesirable. Indeed, large food manufacturers in Australia have long used robotics in food processing throughout the production process.
More recently, small manufacturers have turned to more affordable robots to help free-up staff from unstimulating or labour-intensive roles. In small manufacturing facilities, even skilled workers can spend more than 32 hours per week on repetitive activities such as picking or packaging.
Lightweight industrial robots can take over these activities, while also significantly slashing the time taken to complete each action. For example, in a small bottling plant a single robot is able to complete the packaging process more than 35 percent faster than manual handling. The robot is used to pick-up two or three bottles simultaneously from the production line every 2.5 seconds, orienting them, and placing them in the packing machine.
Such a set-up can enable organisations to utilise staff more effectively – freeing them up to perform more skilled activities, such as operating machinery.
A move to modularity
Today’s emerging manufacturing technologies are extremely adaptable – both in terms of function and the way they integrate into the overall production process. The highly configurable new technologies can significantly improve throughput time – particularly in the areas of preparation and set-up, as well as reducing inspection and put-away time.
For industrial robots, the push for lightweight machines means they can be mounted on the wall or shifted from one location to another, adding flexibility to the manufacturing process, thereby saving money on valuable real estate costs. This is a significant advantage for manufacturers when they choose to expand, move or grow their production line.
Also, small batch and seasonal productions are no longer stumbling blocks for businesses as the robots can be relocated with ease without the need to overhaul the floor layout and can be assigned to carry out different tasks in accordance with demand.
One of the most appealing aspects of the new generation of industrial robotics to small businesses is that they no longer require specialist knowledge to operate. Modern machines can now be completely reconfigured and deployed for any number of tasks in a matter of hours by almost any employee, instead of relying on engineers, therefore avoiding high fees. Lightweight robots now use a drag and drop interface more commonly found on consumer devices. Programming can be done via a teach pendant whereby the user-friendly interface allows the programmer to drag and drop the routines to do their programming. This functionality is very similar to an iPad, allowing manufacturers to take full advantage of all the production benefits of a dedicated production line.
Safety and cost
Of course there are many other considerations when investing in new technology – including the wellbeing of employees and ROI.
Manufacturing roles often consist of labour-intensive manual tasks. These are potentially highly dangerous activities, yet the reality is that for many employees this will constitute a large part of their working week.
Injuries related to both repetitive manual handling and workplace accidents cost the Australian economy millions of dollars every year. Packing and production lines in small operations are particularly risky. However, in contrast to traditional industrial robots in the market, small and lightweight robots can work collaboratively with staff.
Collaborative robots, or “co-bots” (in the majority of cases) don’t require safety shielding, enabling staff to work side-by-side with the robots.
Of course, the business benefit of industrial robotics goes well beyond just safety, with affordability also being one of the main business considerations. During the past few years industrial robots have become increasingly cost-effective. In most instances the investment in a lightweight industrial robot can be recouped in just over a year, and the total initial ownership cost is very low compared to many traditional robots.
The ease of programming, integration and after sales maintenance means manufacturers save about 30 to 40 percent in integration costs compared to other traditional industrial robots in the market.
Lightweight robot technology is helping small food manufacturers transform their production lines, while retaining skilled workers and creating a safe workplace environment where employees can work side-by-side with a robotic counterpart.
Shermine Gotfredsen is business development manager at Universal Robots Asia Pacific.
In this fourth instalment of GM in Australia – a series looking at the facts, ethics, regulations and research into genetically modified crops – Christopher Mayes examines ethical issues surrounding GM foods.
Food is cultural, social and deeply personal, so it’s no surprise that modifications to the way food is produced, distributed and consumed often lead to ethical debates.
Developments in the genetic modification (GM) of foods and crops has resulted in a raft of controversies.
Ethics can help here. While science determines whether we can safely modify the genetic makeup of certain organisms, ethics asks whether we should.
Ethics tries to move beyond factual statements about what is, to evaluative statements about the way we should act towards ourselves, each other and the environment we inhabit. But things are not always so clear-cut.
Three areas of ethics can help frame some of the concerns with GM food and crops: virtue, moral status and consequences.
Virtues vs vices
Ethics of GM foods can be developed by looking at virtue or character. Does the activity of engaging in the development of GM foods and crops erode virtues while producing vices? Or is GM technology a prudent use of knowledge for humanitarian goals?
Character or virtue-based arguments are seen in the case of golden rice – a rice strain modified to contain beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.
According to the World Health Organisation more than 250 million preschool age children are vitamin A deficient (VAD), and two million deaths and more than half a million cases of blindness are attributed to VAD. The developers of golden rice say it will supply 60% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A.
Critics of golden rice such as Wendell Berry and Vandana Shiva argue that GM technology is a solution offered by industrial agriculture to address problems created by industrial agriculture.
Golden rice is a techno-scientific fix to structural problems created by some of the very companies that may profit from GM crops.
Although golden rice is a non-profit initiative, Shiva argues that it is a trojan horse to give GM crops a humanitarian face.
According to opponents such as Shiva, golden rice and GM crops not only pose negative consequences for farmers, environment and the global poor, but represent vices of greed, arrogance and dominance. Rather than humbly working with and caring for the natural environment, industrial and technological interventions seek to master, profit and control.
Morality of nature
This position depends on arguments that nature has dignity and interests beyond those of its human inhabitants. Such arguments are not readily accepted due to their metaphysical or theological overtones and dependence on essentialist idea of nature.
Appeals to nature can led to what British philosopher G.E. Moore described as the naturalistic fallacy – the idea that we can derive moral statements from facts of nature. Examples include:
raw milk is good because it’s natural
standing desks are good because we weren’t meant to sit
genetically modified crops are wrong because they’re unnatural.
Perhaps we aren’t so concerned about the essential dignity of rice or wheat, but what about GM pigs that glow in the dark, featherless chickens, cows that produce human milk or the integrity of an ecosystem? Although the arguments are relatively the same, in discussing GM animals, the idea of a natural integrity or dignity seems more compelling.
Weighing up consequences
The most common way of framing the ethics of GM foods is to ask: do GM foods and crops present negative or harmful consequences for individuals, populations or the environment? Answers to this question vary according to context.
Most scientists argue that GM foods are safe to eat and will not harm consumer health.
While critics maintain that long-term health effects are uncertain, they contend that even if GM foods are safe to eat other harmful consequences should be considered, such as the impact of patenting laws on farmers and research integrity, or the risk of GM crops contaminating other crops or escaping into the wild.
Debates over consequences tend to avoid the question of whether there is something inherently objectionable about GM foods and crops. So long as there is appropriate management of risks, then theoretically, there is no ethical problem.
It is unlikely these issues will be resolved any time soon – and likely that new ones will be added – but one area that can be worked on is discourse ethics.
Describing opponents of golden rice, even those that destroy test crops, as committing crimes against humanity or those in favour as pursing economic self-interest does little to move the debate forward.
Until productive discourse is established, barriers between opposing views will only strengthen.
In this third instalment of GM in Australia – a series looking at the facts, ethics, regulations and research into genetically modified crops – Ashley Ng explains how GM foods are determined safe to eat.
Genetically modified (GM) foods require strict assessment before they can be considered safe for human consumption.
In Australia, GM foods are regulated under Standards 1.5.2 – Food produced using Gene Technology, which covers the sale and use of food and the labelling of food produced using gene technology.
Its schedule lists the permitted foods produced using gene technology that can be sold in Australia and New Zealand.
Foods produced using gene technology are prohibited from sale in Australia and New Zealand unless they have undergone strenuous pre-market assessment and been approved by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).
FSANZ identifies new or altered hazards associated with the food as a result of the genetic modification. It assesses whether there is risk associated with any identified hazards under the intended conditions of use, and determine if any new conditions are needed to enable safe use of the food.
GM food approval in Australia
The only GM foods which have been approved for sale in Australia after a case-by-case analysis are specific GM varieties of canola, corn, cotton, lucerne, potato, rice, soybean and sugarbeet.
It also assesses any altered composition or nutritional value introduced by genetic modification to the organism.
While FSANZ doesn’t conduct its own laboratory tests, its assessments are based on safety data provided by the applicant generated according to quality assurance guidelines on internationally accepted protocols consistent with Good Laboratory Practice:
Case-by-case consideration of GM foods is necessary because the key issues requiring consideration in a safety assessment will often depend on the type of food being evaluated and the nature of the genetic modification
FSANZ assesses intended (related to the particular genetic modification made) and unintended effects (such as toxicity to the edible part of the plant, or unexpected allergenicity) of the GM
Comparisons with conventional foods having an acceptable standard of safety.
FSANZ also uses other sources such as scientific literature, including evaluation of animal feeding studies where available, independent scientists, other regulatory bodies and importantly, the general community who can tender written submissions for currently open assessments.
GM foods undergo more rigorous pre-market assessment than any other food sold in Australia. As new flood and drought-resistant GM crops and organisms become available, it can be expected that the number of approval applications will increase.
From the aspect of food safety assessment, a stringent process is currently in place that includes invitation for public comment.
As this process can reject GM food applications or impose conditions on their use in the interests of public health, the safety, nutritional and societal impacts of any new GM foods will continue to be assessed before these GM products should appear, appropriately labelled, on our shelves.
Ashley Ng receives funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council. He is affiliated with the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Royal College of Pathologists Australasia. He has previously received research funding from the Leukaemia Foundation of Australia and Cure Cancer Australia.