Food safety incidents

Despite the safeguards provided by food laws and the monitoring undertaken by regulators and enforcement agencies, sometimes cases arise where people, or a group of people, have become unwell, or injured, after eating food. When multiple people, from different locations around Australia and New Zealand, start displaying similar patterns of illness, or injury, potentially caused by a food, regulators begin to investigate this as a ‘food safety incident’.  

When there is a potential food safety incident regulators operate at a heightened level of alert to identify the source of illness or injury. Once the source has been identified food safety incident regulators seek to trace, locate and remove the offending food from the marketplace, in a timely and coordinated effort. The cause of a food incident can be:

  • microbiological
  • physical
  • radiological
  • chemical
  • unknown.

 To coordinate and manage food safety incidents the following tools are used.

Bi-National Food Safety Network

The Bi-National Food Safety Network establishes a framework for sharing and evaluating information on food safety issues and incidents and determines appropriate actions. The Network is coordinated by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) with membership from the:

  • Commonwealth
  • New Zealand and
  • all State and Territories with a role in food regulation.

The engagement of the Bi-National Food Safety Network begins in the early stages of an incident or potential incident, when it is not necessarily clear as to what is going on, but emerging trends of food related illness or injury have become known. The Network meets via videoconference and will continue to operate throughout the response to a food incident, until it is deemed the incident has been resolved and there are no further cases of illness, or injury, in the community.

Situations that trigger action from the Bi-National Food Safety Network

  • More than one jurisdiction is affected
    This could mean people have been becoming unwell in different parts of Australia, or food identified as being unsafe is distributed to different locations in Australia.
  • A Multi-Jurisdictional Outbreak Investigation (MJOI) has confirmed an outbreak in multiple jurisdictions.
    A Multi-Jurdisdictional Outbeak Investigation is undertaken by OzFoodNet (external site), a collaborative network of epidemiologists and microbiologists, and Communicable Disease Control.  The Multi-Jurdisdictional Outbeak Investigation highlights patterns where human cases of illness or injury can be linked to a common scenario such as a type of food, an ingredient or a specific event.
  • Imported food is implicated
    Sometimes information is provided from overseas countries about food products that have been subject to food recalls and incidents in that country and the implicated food is believed to have been exported to Australia.
  • A jurisdiction makes a public statement about an emerging food safety or public health issue in their jurisdiction
    At times a jurisdiction will determine a need to alert the public via a media statement with urgency to mitigate a risk to public health and safety. The jurisdiction in question will communicate this information to the Bi-National Food Safety Network, to enable all jurisdictions to prepare for any questions arising from the public or local media.
National Food Incident Response Protocol

The National Food Incident Response Protocol is the Standard Operating Procedure used by food regulators to coordinate and manage how they respond to national and/or bi-national food safety emergencies.  This Protocol enables a coordinated and targeted response to any food safety related crises (incident), across multiple jurisdictions, and can extend to New Zealand.  

Food products can be distributed across state and territory boundaries and can be imported. The Protocol enables a consistent approach nation-wide to inform consumers of the risks associated with a food, remove all affected food from sale, and manage any ongoing risk to public health and safety associated with the incident.

Triggering the National Food Incident Response Protocol

Any jurisdiction can trigger the National Food Incident Response Protocol, based on certain criteria being met. To be considered a national incident, the food incident will impact, or potentially impact, on multiple jurisdictions requiring response action at a national level. A Multi-jurisdictional Outbreak Investigations can also trigger the National Food Incident Response Protocol.  

FSANZ role

FSANZ has an important role in the coordination of a food incident, undertaking the draft risk profile and assessment, and facilitating the distribution of communications between regulators, and the food industry. The centralisation of communications means a common message is being provided to the government, media and public. The Bi-National Food Safety Network is engaged in the early stages of an incident, or potential incident. FSANZ coordinates a range of materials during the incident, including frequently asked questions, media statements and recall information. Jurisdictions can also send information to FSANZ for wider distribution.

Food Incident Response Working Group

The Implementation Sub-Committee on Food Regulation (external site), Food Incident Response Working Group meets annually to review and refine the operation of the National Food Incident Response Protocol. The outcome and lessons learnt from previous incidents are discussed and integrated into the Protocol to further streamline processes and make any improvements possible to the efficiency of national or bi-national response during an incident.

Department of Health and local government involvement

Department of Health role

The Department works within a food regulatory system recognising food safety encompasses all levels of government: national, state, and local government. To ensure emergencies and incidents are effectively investigated, managed, and communicated, the Department provides central coordination of information within the State.  The Department is represented on the Bi-National Food Safety Network and has established communication channels with:

  • other State and Territory food regulators New Zealand and
  • other relevant Australian Government agencies including FSANZ and Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. 

Local government role

Local government have an important role in investigating and identifying food safety issues, including food recalls and incidents. Local government investigations involve following up with food businesses, e.g., distributors, manufacturers, processors, and retailers, where affected product may be available for sale.  This includes working with food businesses where a food recall may be required because of an incident. In the event of a food safety incident priority is afforded to removing product from sale and distribution. 

Identifying potential food safety issues within WA

In WA there are surveillance mechanisms in place to enable a potential food safety incident or outbreak to be detected. There are several ways the department may become aware of a potential food safety issue.

  • Direct reporting
    Reporting from consumers, local government, the media and other state government departments 
  • Notification of pathogens in food
    It is a legal requirement under the Food Act 2008 for the isolations of certain pathogens in food to be notified to the Department.
  • Notification of pathogens in human faecal samples
    The Public Health Act 2016 also requires the notification of certain pathogens isolated from human faecal samples.  In this regard a doctor may request a patient presenting with gastrointestinal illness collect a faecal sample for microbiological testing. If a notifiable pathogen is detected, then this information is reported to the Department.  Patterns can be seen when the same pathogen is found in multiple people, and questions arise as to whether there is a commonality of source of illness.
  • OzfoodNet monitor notifications
    OzFoodNet monitor notification of pathogens in humans. Sometimes these pathogens can be attributed to food sources. OzFoodNet undertake interviews of individuals who have been ill because of a pathogen to determine the source, and whether this source could be a food.
  • Local government sampling
    Where a food is implicated as a possible source of illness, the Department will work with local government to undertake sampling of implicated food. This may include, taking samples of leftover food from an individual’s home, or from the retailer/manufacturer, where the food was purchased, and send this for testing.
  • Voluntary industry food recalls
    Where the food is determined to be the cause of illness, local government may work with the food business to instigate a voluntary food recall. Sometimes a food business may take a precautionary approach and instigate a food recall.
  • Multi-jurisdictional Outbreak Investigations (MJOI)
    Information on human cases of pathogens in WA can inform an Multi-jurisdictional Outbreak Investigations. OzFoodNet routinely discuss outbreak data, and where patterns are seen, a Multi-jurisdictional Outbreak Investigations may commence, and this in turn can trigger the National Food Incident Response Protocol.