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As people become lazy or increasingly time poor due to a range of work, study and social commitments, convenience foods are playing a big part of many people’s diets around the world. There have been some concerns since a recent listeria outbreak that convenience foods pose health risks. This study will investigate safety risks surrounding convenience food.
Convenience food, referred to in this study is commercially prepared refrigerated packaged food created for consumers as an easy way for them to obtain and consume a dish of their choice. Since the 1920s, when Clarence Birdseye discovered that peas could be quickly blanched and frozen, refrigeration has enabled many food items, such as cooked vegetables and meat to be preserved and used at other times for convenience. The proliferation of larger supermarkets in the 1940s and 1950s, with reliable freeze refrigeration systems enabled customers with freezers to buy frozen pre-prepared foods like frozen peas, beans and carrots to save time and the color and taste were comparable to fresh seasonal cooked vegetables and these became staple in many Australian family diets.According to Bee Wilson, in 1948 just two percent of households in Britain had a refrigerator and convenience foods became more popular as refrigeration became more affordable. So, by 1968, approximately 94% of Australian households had a refrigerator which enabled them to store convenience foods, either home-made or store bought. The popularity of the convenience food industry has grown enormously so that Statista, a market research company estimates that it is worth over $380 million annually in Australia.
Australian Food News reported in 2010, that CHOICE, a leading consumer advocacy group, did research that found frozen fresh food delivered comparatively better nutritional value than ‘fresh’ food which had been vacuum packed with carbon dioxide and nitrogen, and refrigerated for long periods of time. Freezing vegetable can lock in nutrients and as household continue to be time poor, the convenience of pre-prepared fresh fruit and vegetable such as bagged mixed lettuce, cut pumpkin and chopped root vegetable has also grown in availability. The cost of convenience] In recent years there appears to be a recall on frozen or packaged pre-prepared vegetable and fruits every few weeks or so. Foods contaminated with microorganisms such as Listeria, E coli, salmonella hepatitis have been common in the news. According to Food Standards Australia there have been 174 recalls due to microorganism contamination in the last 10 years.
Micro-contamination has been found in a number of frozen foods including frozen pomegranate and contributed to the deaths of some consumers. The micro-contaminations have caused hepatitis A outbreaks in NSW earlier this year and, after investigation, Creative Gourmet’s 180g frozen pomegranate arils were withdrawn from sale in April. People were reminded again in May by SA Health to throw out the product after it was linked to 11 cases of hepatitis. Professor Paddy Phillips SA Health chief medical officer and chief public health officer recently revealed that a 64-year-old South Australian woman died on June 5, 2018 after being hospitalized for the infection from this product. He stated that only 226 packets of the 2000m packets of Egyptian grown pomegranate arils were returned, although many more may have been disposed of by consumers after the warning. Nationally, 24 hepatitis A cases, including two from South Australia, have been linked to this product from the Entyce Food Ingredients company. In May 2017, after another hepatitis A scare, around 45,000 packets of Creative Gourmet mixed berries with a use-by date of January 15, 2021 were recalled and in July 2018 Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) issued a warning and recalled certain brands of frozen vegetables some of which were imported from Europe and sold by Aldi, Woolworths and Aldi stores. This occurred after a Listeria outbreak that killed six people in Victoria and New South Wales were traced to these brands.
Contamination is likely to occur when preparation and storage is compromised. For example, if frozen vegetables are defrosted then frozen again, and defrosted for use bacteria can multiply, causing consumers to become ill when consuming the product. Frozen foods are convenient, taste reasonably fresh if stored and used correctly, and are a budget solution for eating vegetables out of season. However, contaminated frozen foods can pose a severe risk to people’s health.
Food safety should be a number one priority for every food and beverage outlets, no matter its size or scale. Without clearly defined food safety standards in the workplace, things like food poisoning from convenience food may occur. Food poisoning is an illness which occurs when food contaminated with harmful bacteria or toxins is digested. Around Australia, there are 24 different food hygiene laws and regulations. On top of that, there are over 700 local councils with different by-laws to regulate food businesses. The system currently operating costs the governments $18.6 million annually (net) to enforce, and it costs small business an estimated $337 million annually to comply. Around sixty to eighty per cent of foodborne illness arise from the food service industry.
Every day in Australia 11,500 people come down with some kind of foodborne disease. That’s 4.2 million cases of foodborne illness every year. There’s no denying that food poisoning is expensive, there are over 500,000 cases per year in the UK according to research by the Food Standards Agency, and estimates in the US put the cost at $77 billion – almost twice the annual cost of the common cold. Not only can food poisoning be an unpleasant experience for the victim, it can also be crippling for the business where the outbreak originates from, whether due to a tarnished reputation for quality, or at worst, a lawsuit.
Fast food restaurants and salad bars, rare 50 years ago, are today a primary source of food consumption for many Australians. There are just over 24 million Australians, and they eat out an average of two to three times a week. That’s more than 50 million meals out each week, or 2.5 billion in a year. It is estimated that the number of food service outlets in Australia, has grown 57 per cent with Australians spending 30 per cent of their food budget on take away food and dining out. Problems occur if correct food handling procedures are not followed. A high tea at the Langham hotel in Melbourne in 2015 was linked to a salmonella outbreak which made at least 86 people sick, including six who have been hospitalized. The cause of the outbreak was linked to contaminated egg mayonnaise with the contamination traced back to using raw eggs that contained a salmonella virus. Many restaurants and cafes in the food and hospitality industry use refrigerated pre-prepared foods such as egg-whites and frozen fruit. Maintaining the correct temperature of these convenience food during storage and service is necessary to avoid contamination.
The symptoms of food poisoning may vary depending on the type of bacteria causing the illness and can range from being mild to very severe. They can occur almost immediately after eating, or a number of hours later, and the illness can last from 24 hours to five days. Food-borne pathogens can cause other symptoms in a patient. For instance, pathogenic Listeria bacteria could cause miscarriage or meningitis in susceptible people. Food poisoning can also lead to other long-term illnesses and symptoms. So food poisoning is a very serious problem. Severe cases require hospitalization and in Australia, doctors notify food and health authorities if the patient identifies that the poisoning was caused by restaurant or convenience food. When food poisoning is caused by a particular product or a food and hospitality venue, FSANZ coordinates food recall information with state and territory authorities, other government agencies and industry to locate and deal with the problem before a major health crisis occurs. Fortunately, there are things that can be done. Cultivating a good reputation for food safety and taking steps to avoid outbreaks in the food and hospitality industry largely comes down to staff training. Often, E coli cases are caused by employees not washing their hands correctly after using the loo, while salmonella cases are commonly caused by not correctly washing surfaces after contact with raw poultry. Following FSANZ and HACCP regulations is critical to avoid costly food poisoning episodes.
HACCP Management to reduce food safety risks is need to avoid food poisoning. Facilities and equipment need to be monitored for cleanliness, correct running temperature, ventilation and drainage and all equipment should have a cleaning schedule that involves disassembling, washing, drying, sanitizing and reassembling and a maintenance schedule according to its manufacturer’s recommendations. Visually checking equipment is not enough to ensure cleanliness as an outbreak at the Burnside Hospital in 2015 found that only visual checks were carried out. Fresh food supplies should be obtained from approved certified sellers and all stored ingredients should be labeled with origin, date and barcode so that should problems occur, the supplier can be traced. Cold storage facilities must be regularly checked and approved for correct temperature and the avoidance of cross contamination and dry storage facilities must be correctly ventilated and regularly inspected by a pest management program. An interview with Andrew a chef with 30 years of experience in the South Australian food industry said that FSANZ food inspectors usually visit his restaurant at least once a year but more if changes need to be made. ‘We are very careful with our storage and preparation of food so as to avoid risk of food poisoning… and this is continuously monitored and procedures improved. For example receiving goods and storing in card board boxes. Fresh produce arrives in cardboard and we immediately transfer to disinfected plastic tubs. We needed to install a specific hand washing sink a few years ago, this took quite a bit of work and rearrangement of the kitchen. Other issues have been about the trapping of grease and rubbish disposal.’
Convenience foods obtained from the food and hospitality industry can pose health risks if production processes do not follow Australian and New Zealand Food Safety regulations. This investigation has found that frozen foods are extremely convenient for Australian households but products which have been incorrectly processed and stored have been linked to outbreaks of hepatitis and Salmonella and people have become sick as a result of these micro-contaminants. Products have had to be recalled to keep the public safe.
As increasing numbers of Australians are purchasing convenience foods, when HACCP processes do not comply with FSANZ standards, many Australians are being affected by some form of food poisoning daily and severe cases can lead to long-term illnesses and even death.
It is important that employee personal hygiene, and environmental hygiene including equipment cleanliness and maintenance, pest control, storage and supplier review comply with FSANZ and HACCP regulations in the preparation of convenience foods so that customers can be assured of its safety.
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