Food safety and security is of increasing importance to consumers around the world, and Australia is well positioned to supply a growing demand, particularly in Asia, for 'clean', high-quality food.
Food safety: Australia’s export advantage
Globally, the level of quality assurance demanded by consumers continues to rise, with retailers seeking to ensure suppliers meet more stringent quality and safety standards. According to Deloitte report ‘The food value chain: A challenge for the next century’, “This is becoming a key differentiator for global retailers that compete in emerging markets.”
Australia’s high environmental and food safety standards, comparatively rigorous industry regulation and relative isolation from pests and disease, mean that, organic or otherwise, our produce is generally regarded as ‘cleaner and greener’ than that of many other nations.
Thanks to our reputation for food safety and quality, Australian producers are perfectly positioned to cash in on the growing global market for safe, high-quality food – with much of this demand coming from a burgeoning middle class in emerging nations such as China, where the safety and quality of food grown and/or processed locally can be questionable. Australia’s geographic proximity to many of these markets is a further advantage.
Food and plant/animal science innovations
Cutting-edge developments in the fields plant and animal science are helping Australian farmers streamline their operations, making them more productive and sustainable. Some innovations that look set to transform food production, enabling farmers to produce top-quality, sustainable food efficiently and get it to the consumer faster and thus, fresher, include:
- biological tools to control pests and crop diseases;
- new equipment for sorting and grading that enables consistent quality control for domestic (especially supermarket) and export markets;
- new equipment that improves animal husbandry and minimises stress to livestock ;
- precision agriculture tools and field robots that can automate many routine cropping tasks, enabling the more efficient use of resources, reducing overuse of fertilisers and pesticides, and helping farmers determine the best times to plant, water and harvest for optimal quality, size and ripeness – especially important when a consistently high-grade product is required (e.g. for export markets or supermarket chains);
- supply chain logistics tools that make distribution faster and more efficient – especially important when freshness and shelf life are issues;
- the creation of new, health-promoting grains such as CSIRO’s BarleyMAX;
- new feedstocks that boost quality, productivity and sustainability, such as CSIRO’s Novacq prawn feed, a natural additive that doesn’t deplete wild fish stocks.
Every food has a shelf life: the length of time after which it will start to deteriorate or, in some cases, become less nutritious or unsafe to eat.
The benefits of extending the shelf life of fresh and processed foods are many, and extend to producers, manufacturers, exporters, retailers and consumers.
- The product is available longer for purchase in the store or supermarket;
- Wastage and product returns are reduced;
- Produce can be distributed more widely (including overseas); and
- Seasonal products can be stockpiled and sold at a premium.
Traditional shelf-life extension methods, some of which have been in use for millennia, include smoking and salt curing, pickling, freezing, canning, commercial sterilisation and chemical preservatives.
With fresh foods rather than frozen and ‘shelf-stable’ ones, it’s a different story: consumers are wary of buying fresh produce that’s had preservatives or other additives used to extend its safe, stable shelf life.
It’s critical to keep fresh foods refrigerated (ideally, at 5°C or below) but, according to a CHOICE Magazine investigation into shelf life certain methods of processing and packaging fresh food can add days, even months to its chilled shelf life. Methods currently in use include:
- flash pasteurisation or high-temperature, short-time (HTST) processing: used on perishable beverages (fruit and vegetable juices, milk) and thought to cause less damage to nutrient composition, flavour and aroma than traditional pasteurisation while resulting in a significant extension of shelf life;
- high-pressure processing (HPP): applied in Australia mostly to premium-priced products including juices, ready-to-eat meats, guacamole and some fruit, it inactivates microbes without disrupting chemical bonds (as occurs during treatments involving heat, such as pasteurisation). According to CSIRO research, HPP results in a more flavourful, natural-coloured, crisper product with higher nutritional value than similar heat-processed products. It’s costly but HPP significantly extends shelf life – in some cases, by six months; and
- packaging methods that reduce or remove oxygen from around the product surface to inhibit bacterial growth and oxidation (preventing foods from browning or going rancid), such as:
- shrink-bag vacuum-packing meat, extending its shelf life by months in cold-storage conditions and by at least a few weeks in retail display conditions,
- modified-atmosphere packaging (MAP), useful for fresh and minimally processed foods (such as fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood) that may be too delicate to vacuum-pack or have a tendency to spoil or discolour in low-oxygen conditions, and
- oxygen scavengers, small sachets of iron-based compounds and a catalyst that remove residual oxygen in MAP packages, can extend their shelf life further.
Date-marking, consumers’ guide to a food’s shelf life, is based either on quality attributes or health and safety considerations. In Australia, foods and drinks may be marked with:
- a best-before date, after which the food or beverage so labelled may still be safe to consume but is likely to be significantly reduced in quality; and
- a use-by date, indicating the final date on which the product can be consumed safely provided it has been stored appropriately in unopened packaging. After that time, it could be contaminated by relatively harmless but unpleasant spoilage bacteria, or by potentially harmful food-poisoning bacteria (such as salmonella), the presence of which may not change the smell, taste or appearance of the food.
In Australia, manufacturers are responsible for shelf life labelling regarding food products. Which dates apply to various foods, and how to calculate a specific food’s shelf life are detailed in The Australian Food Standards Code.
A healthy food future
In response to the dietary recommendations of public health bodies and global health organisations such as WHO, and to growing demand from consumers for safer, healthier, more nutritious foods here and around the world, Australian food producers might want to consider the following:
- how best to cater to an expanding overseas demand (especially in Asia) for high-grade, clean, safe and nutritious food;
- how to build awareness of the many high-quality, ‘clean’ and ‘green’ foods produced and/or processed in Australia, address current problems of perception regarding these foods, and stimulate consumer demand for them;
- how to broaden what are currently niche markets for nutritionally high-grade products (super-foods, organic foods, genetically superior grains, nutritional supplements etcetera) and connect with new markets for such produce.
Special report: review of Australian quarantine and Biosecurity (The Beale Review)
Deloitte report: ‘The food value chain: A challenge for the next century’.
Food and Agriculture Organisation for the United Nations (FAOSTAT)
Australian Government Department of Agriculture
Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)
Australian Food Safety Standards
Australian Food Standards Code