For Prof Andreas Lopata, his ‘eureka’ moment came during the frozen mixed berries and hepatitis A food scare in April 2015: “I thought, ‘what about an app to warn people of food recalls?’” explains the molecular immunologist and ARC Future Fellow based at the College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences, James Cook University.
In collaboration with his PhD student Michael Sheridan, Lopata set about developing a food recall app called FoodRecall Aus AppTM – the first app of its kind in Australia, which works by sending out daily RSS news feeds from the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and Australian Food News websites.
The news feeds alert users to recently recalled food products, and includes information about the reason for the recall and the location of the outlets (such as stores, suppliers and so on).
After initially struggling to secure backers for the project, the duo decided to fund the project themselves, with the FSANZ providing the technical expertise to access the RSS feeds.
Food recall, as defined by FSANZ is “an action taken to remove from sale, distribution and consumption foods which may pose a safety risk to consumers”. Once a food product is identified as being potentially harmful to the public, a recall can occur after consultation between state and territory government authorities and the product’s supplier, who could be the manufacturer or importer.
“With over 80 food recalls so far this year, 2015 has seen the highest number of food recalls ever recorded in the history of FSANZ,” says Lopata.
“Many have been imported coconut-based products, like coconut milk and other drinks containing undeclared dairy milk, which are often not subject to the same strict guidelines around production and labeling as those manufactured in Australia.”
Frozen seafood, fruit and vegetables are among the many processed foods Australia imports, according to the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.
Processed foods are food products that have gone through many processing steps and often contain additives, artificial flavourings and other chemical ingredients. During these varied and often complex processing stages, there is significant potential for mislabeled or contaminated food to enter the Australian food chain.
Recent endorsement by the Environmental Health Association of Australia means that the app can now be used by environmental health officers, whose role is to enforce public health and safety regulations and conduct inspections of premises where food is kept to ensure that it is handled and stored in a safe and hygienic manner.
Lopata believes the food recall app could also provide valuable food safety information to parents living in remote communities who have children with food allergies.
“Around 10% of Australian children have a food allergy,” says Lopata. “In north Queensland, the nearest specialist allergy clinic is around 1500 km away in Brisbane. Our app could raise awareness and access to information in remote communities on food product recalls that relate to allergens, like peanuts and seafood as well as toxins in food.”
Lopata is also looking to extend the app to cover countries such as New Zealand, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, which currently don’t have this type of service.
According to The Australian Dairy Industry, published in 2011 by PwC Australia, over 50% of Australian dairy products are exported – with 30% going to South-East Asian countries. “We hope we will raise awareness of food safety among countries across Asia,” says Lopata.
– Carl Williams