How is imported food checked?

The Department of Agriculture have released another statement in relation to the national response to recent concerns about the safety of imported foods. This comes after a Hepatitis A outbreak linked to frozen berries imported from China:

18 February 2015

The Department of Agriculture is maintaining close engagement with the Department of Health, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), the peak industry body, state food authorities and importers as part of a national response to recent concerns about the safety of imported food.

The department has today formally requested a review of the risk status of frozen berries from FSANZ. The department will also consider the outcomes of incident investigations conducted by the state and territory food authorities.

The department is engaging with Chinese government authorities through the Australian embassy staff in Beijing, seeking assurances about the safety of further shipments of frozen berries exported from China. Given Australia’s strong relationship with China, we remain confident that this food safety incident will be resolved.

The department is tracing products in supply chains as part of working with importers to manage potential risks.
The Department of Agriculture’s Imported Food Inspection Scheme (IFIS) is a risk-based border inspection scheme. The scheme has served Australia well, and food safety issues such as this one are infrequent.

FSANZ provides advice to the department on which imported foods are considered to pose a risk to human health. In the case of the frozen berries, the department is working to gather information to determine what further action might be taken.

Food items that pose a medium or high risk to human health are called ‘risk foods’ and are tested at rate of 100 per cent until a good compliance history is established with a particular importer—they are then tested at a rate of 25 per cent of consignments, dropping to a minimum rate of 5 per cent of consignments if good compliance continues. The inspection rates are established in legislation.

Risk foods are typically pre-prepared, ready-to-eat foods including certain cheeses, cooked meats and seafood, and cured meats.

All other foods are considered to be ‘surveillance foods’. Surveillance foods are randomly inspected at a rate of 5 per cent of all consignments. Samples for laboratory analysis (tests may include chemical residues, heavy metals or natural contaminants) may be taken as well as assessing compliance with packaging and labelling requirements.

Routine testing for viruses in food can be problematic. FSANZ advises that this is because the virus in contaminated food is usually present at extremely low levels where the pathogen cannot be detected by available analytical methods.

The department’s imported food inspection scheme is a risk-based inspection scheme, and the rates of inspection and classification of imported foods can change with new information to hand.

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