Giving the consumer a food safety voice was an important initiative announced by the former Victorian Health Minister, Rob Knowles AO, on behalf of the Victorian government back in 1997. This announcement was made at the A Fresh Approach to Food Hygiene Conference, organised by the Victorian Department of Human Services (now known as Department of Health). This important idea was part of the government’s ‘paddock to plate’ food safety strategy launched at that Conference. The reforms promoted a risk-based approach to food safety management consistent with international guidelines on risk analysis.
While much of the responsibility for food safety rests with government and the food industry, consumers also have an important and potentially powerful role to play. There are two aspects to this.
Minister Knowles said in his address to delegates, “Safe food handling from the point of purchase to consumption is as important in the home as it is in the food business in which it was prepared. If disease is to be avoided”.
He added, “Informed and aware consumers can also help to change poor food handling practices in shops and restaurants by expressing their concerns to the proprietor, if necessary, following this up with the local council (health department)”.
Consumer attitudes to food have changed significantly over the years in response to food safety incidents in Australia and overseas. Twenty years ago, the purchasing priority of Australian consumers was based solely on price, fifteen years ago it was convenience and now it’s a combination of factors: locally sourced, humanely produced, the nutritional value, convenience, price and safety.
Increasingly, consumers are demanding and expect safe food. Empowered consumers are growing in numbers, they are vocal and are prepared to provide feedback to food businesses directly.
The roots for this activity may have started from a catastrophic food borne illness outbreak occurred over the Christmas 1994 holiday period in South Australia and is commonly referred to as the Garibaldi outbreak.
A young four-year-old girl died and twenty-three others were hospitalised due to the effects of food poisoning after consuming contaminated salami.
Consumers made a very clear statement and boycotted the purchase of a range of salami products around the country, the effects of this outbreak nearly ruined the smallgoods industry.
Over the years, there has been a significant number of food safety incidents which have been highlighted by mainstream media outlets which has angered the consumer.
The Age and Herald Sun newspapers reported earlier in 2013 the public was not alerted to serious food poisoning outbreaks that took place during 2011.
At the time, social media were also quick to point the finger at non- conforming food businesses and ineffective “policing” by health authorities.
With the rise of social media many food regulatory agencies are now using this as a tool to promptly engage with consumers when there is a recall of an unsafe food product or an outbreak of food borne illness; they are also educating the consumer with issues around food labelling, nutritional information and where food safety standards have not been met by restaurants, bakeries or take away food businesses with updates to Name and Shame Registers.
Supermarkets and the Hospitality industry, are active in using social media to reach out to consumers about the latest new food products, menu offerings or specials. Should a food safety incident occur (let alone bad service), consumers are not forgiving in their feedback.
If consumers believe they are suffering from food poisoning, or they have found a foreign object in their food they’re increasingly likely to publicly express their views through Facebook or Twitter – some consumers also rely on mainstream media outlets to raise public awareness and then they may contact the health department about this.
Consumers must be made aware of, or even reminded of the risks associated with poor standards of food handling and safety practices that they might witness when they are purchasing food, they must then be made aware of who to contact.
By giving feedback to food regulatory agencies and to the broader food industry is vital if we are to improve the level of food safety standards. Of course, there are other business benefits associated with receiving consumer feedback.
What the regulator and the food industry needs is well considered information from consumers so they can make the necessary improvements to ensure a safe food supply.
- Your local council health department to make a food complaint.
- A medical practitioner if you feel unwell and then speak to your local council health department.
- The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission regarding misleading claims and advertising.
- State and Territory Health Departments regarding Country of Origin and food labelling issues.
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