Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

KaiJune 22, 2020

Food product recalls are on the rise – but how much is slipping through the cracks?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

From metal-spiked muffin splits and toxic fish to potentially fatal peanut traces, recalls have increased nearly four-fold in recent years. It’s a sign the system is working, but when it comes to transparency around what’s in our food, critics say New Zealand lags behind. 

Before putting an item in her shopping basket, Simone Antcliff reads the label, reads it again, and then once more for good measure. It’s a laborious exercise that can add hours of study to her supermarket trip every week, but she knows that a misread label may be the difference between life and death.

Like any “allergy mum” in New Zealand, Antcliff makes damned sure every ingredient in her pantry is accounted for, so, in 2017, when her then nine-year-old daughter Olivia’s throat started to swell up during afternoon tea, she knew something was off. 

“As a parent, I’m going, ‘oh my god, what have I done, what’s she eaten?’ I’m tearing the rubbish out of the bin fearing the worst,” said Antcliff. 

She hadn’t done a thing wrong; a labelling mess-up by the manufacturer had allowed a product with an undisclosed allergen to be circulated around supermarkets and on to Olivia’s plate – a potentially lethal error, considering Olivia’s severe allergies. Fortunately for Olivia, her symptoms didn’t get any worse, but it’s enough to shake the faith of any mum.

Olivia’s experience prompted the company in question to do a product recall, asking for all the mislabelled items to be returned to the manufacturer. It was one of 77 product recalls in New Zealand in 2017.

For the increasing numbers of New Zealanders with severe allergies, a mislabelled product can be potentially fatal (Photo: Getty Images)

Recalls on the rise 

Many would have seen ads, social media posts or news stories calling for the likes of milky vegan pies, metal-spiked muffin splits and poisonous fish to be returned to the suppliers. 

In most cases, food and beverage recalls are voluntarily initiated by a company when it becomes aware of a potential food safety or suitability issue in the product. From there, the Ministry of Primary Industries will coordinate the rollout of the recall, which includes a media release to keep the public in the know.

If you had an inkling they’d been coming through far more frequently of late, you’re on the money. Data sourced through Official Information Act (OIA) requests and from MPI’s website shows the rate of food and beverage recalls jumped by 276% over the last few years, from an average of 21.7 per year between 2000 and 2016, to 81.7 from 2017 to 2019. That averages to more than 1.5 every week. 

The primary cause for the rise in recalls was an increase in the number of undeclared allergens – when manufacturers fail to label for the 11 major allergens, like eggs, gluten and dairy. Data shows that in the last three years, allergen-based recalls have increased by nearly six times from the rather modest 7.5 cases a year averaged from 2000 to 2016, to 43.7 recalls annually from 2016 to 2017. 

“Every time I see a new recall, my stomach drops a bit,” said Antcliff. “We try to be so careful, but it gets out of our hands at a certain point.”

Limited research has been done to determine exactly how widespread allergies are in New Zealand, but studies out of Australia indicate the numbers are rising. 

“Overall, the prevalence of food allergies around the world is believed to be increasing, with more than 8% of children and 2% of adults in countries like New Zealand having an allergy to one or more foods,” said Penny Jorgensen, an allergy advisor at Allergy NZ. 

It’s unclear whether a tightening of regulation has correlated to any reduced allergen-inflicted harm. Research shows that death by anaphylaxis is reasonably rare in New Zealand, with just 18 fatalities of the kind in the Auckland region between 1985 to 2005.

Some of the year’s recalls so far, screengrabbed from the MPI website (Photo: Getty Images)

Why the increase?

For consumers, seeing a new recall pop up every week can be terrifying. Even if you don’t have an allergy, the prospect of eating mercury with your morning muffin split or trying to chew through a piece of machinery in your bolognese is hardly appetising. 

However, it’s more than likely that all this increased transparency is actually a good thing for consumers – the recalls may identify an error in the manufacturing process, but importantly, they’re a symptom of a system that is actively working to protect consumers. 

The surging rates of recalls coincided with the introduction of New Zealand’s revamped food act in March 2016, a piece of legislation that puts greater onus on manufacturers to take accountability for any potential harm that might result from their products.

“Food businesses are far more aware of their obligations under the new legislation,” said Melinda Sando, manager of food compliance services at the Ministry for Primary Industries. “The numbers are a sign that the system is actually working, between the food system and the regulator.” 

Sando also points to improved voluntary reporting from companies, which are keen to honour their legal obligations to the regulator, as well as maintain their reputation for consumers. 

Significant leaps in technology over the last few years is also a likely contributor to the flood of new voluntary recalls. The likes of Auckland-based Unleashed Software have improved companies’ ability to track specific batches through the manufacturing process, and increased sophistication of lab testing means companies have greater awareness of toxins and allergens as they present. 

It’s something that’s front of mind for Murray McPhail, chairman of Leaderbrand, one of the country’s largest suppliers of vegetables and salad to the domestic market. 

In 2017, Leaderbrand was involved in the recall of a batch of 32 salad products after identifying the presence of listeria.

“It very nearly bankrupted our business,” said McPhail.

The voluntary recall, which ultimately cost the company more than $7 million, triggered an overhaul of Leaderbrand’s testing process. 

“We changed the way of testing the product, so we’ve gone from looking at things under a microscope to now being able to look at the DNA.” 

This improved technology and greater consumer push for transparency has driven similar trends in countries like the United States and Australia, which have also seen stark rises in food recalls over the last several years. 

In terms of manufacturers from other, less developed countries, there have been concerns over whether they are upholding the same high standards as New Zealand manufacturers.

Photo: Getty Images

A potential double standard?

“Any foods that are supplied here have to comply with the same standards as domestically produced foods, and that includes the labelling requirements,” said MPI’s Sando. 

The introduction of the Food Act in 2016 upped the ante for importers too, regulating that they must all pay a yearly registration, in addition to existing requirements such as supplier product specifications and certificates of analysis. However, the reality on the ground seems to be a little different. 

“There’s not a lot of enforcement in that area,” said Belinda Castles, a researcher and writer at Consumer NZ. 

A cursory trip to my local Asian food mart shows the disconnect between the regulatory requirements and the enforcement of these measures. In just five minutes, I was able to identify three separate products that failed to disclose nutritional and allergen information in English – a clear violation of MPI’s labelling rules. 

“The advice to consumers would be if you can’t understand it, don’t buy it,” said Castles. 

Castles has had similar experiences with non-compliant importers in the past.

“A couple of years ago I was looking into plant-based meats, and the ones we bought from Asian stores definitely didn’t have compliant nutrition or ingredient labelling. They might have a sticker, but they were falling short on the requirements,“ said Castles. 

Asked whether food importers from developed nations are facing the same high level of scrutiny as local companies, McPhail responds with a decisive “no”. 

Research out of James Cook University in Australia points to a more systemic labelling problem. Of the 50 products analysed, all sourced from Asian supermarkets in Melbourne – so not necessarily a representative sample in New Zealand – 46% contained allergens not listed on the product labelling. 

The research has been enough to capture the attention of MPI, but in response to questions from Allergy New Zealand last year, it was suggested that “targeting stores only importing products is not appropriate, as the challenge is wider and MPI wants all businesses to properly manage allergens, so every consumer can trust they are protected and safe”.

“Following the release of the study in December 2019, more information was sought in Australia from the researchers on the foods tested and the results. We are not aware that any significant information has been supplied,” said MPI’s Melinda Sando.

This uncertainty is enough to dissuade Antcliff from purchasing imported foods entirely, meaning the family can trust only a small list of local suppliers to consistently keep their labelling standards. 

“How can I trust those products long term? You just don’t want to risk an anaphylactic reaction,” said Antcliff. 

Products that fail to disclose nutritional and allergen information in English, contrary to MPI’s labelling laws, are easy to find (Photos: Leni Ma’ia’i)

Demand for country-of-origin labelling

Antcliff points to poor country-of-origin labelling as another key reason for her distrust.

Last year country of origin labelling legislation finally passed in New Zealand – but disruptions due to Covid-19 mean they won’t come into play until the tail end of next year. Delays aside, some industry figures think the laws don’t go far enough to protect local manufacturers and consumers. 

“In Australia, their food packaging has country-of-origin labelling that extends to all ingredients. It’s a way to really improve transparency for people buying and eating food,” said Danielle Dadello, country manager for inventory management company Unleashed Software. 

Australia introduced the labelling requirements in 2018, which required most manufacturers to label the country where each product was produced.

Leaderbrand’s Murray McPhail says the failure to extend the country of origin labelling to all foods gives an unfair leg up to international companies, which often have cheaper labour and varying quality control. He contends that political demands to keep food costs low are outweighing the demand for greater transparency.  

“Politicians don’t want to see any increase in food price. Their deal is to keep food costs as low as they possibly can,” says McPhail. 

Dadello says the demand for low-cost items, coupled with loose country-of-origin requirements, has also led to a breakdown in consumers’ ability to track the provenance of many items. 

“We just don’t have that traceability in New Zealand that we probably should have, so consumers can see the complete supply chain,” says Dadello.

“Other countries have tougher rules. For example, in Australia locally manufactured foods have to show the percentage of local ingredients and explain whether the product was made, produced or grown in Australia,” says Castles. 

It’s hoped that increased pressure and awareness of the drawbacks of our current system will align New Zealand more closely with Australia, giving consumers the opportunity to make better-informed decisions about what they’re feeding their families.

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