Nuffield Australia 2016 Scholar
Food safety, it’s no yolk: time to get serious on consistent egg standards, says Scholar
They produce one of the most nutritious, affordable and accessible food sources in the world, but too often Australian egg producers find themselves in the centre of a national food safety scare, even with little or no evidence being traced back to the farm. Victorian free-range egg producer Lachie Green and his wife Milicent, together with his parents Alan and Shelley, own and operate a successful egg business, Green Eggs Pty Ltd, consisting of 36,000 free range hens on a mixed farming operation at Lake Fyans, Victoria.
Established in 1999, Green Eggs found a gap in the market that understood the value of a quality product and believed in the ethos of how it had been produced. Today, they produce 210,000 eggs per week and supply into restaurants, cafes and farmers markets. Despite being at the forefront of quality assurance programs and taking the upmost care to guarantee quality and safety on farm, the business found itself in an unimaginable position in 2014, when a café they supplied to was linked to a salmonella outbreak.
Overnight, Green Eggs’ sales dropped 70% and they were left with no support as to what to do, what to change or how to move forward. The Health Department later found no salmonella on eggs used in that café, and all their on-farm tests came back negative. Mr Green paid tribute to their loyal customer base, hard work and ongoing commitment to best practice as pivotal in helping them get back on their feet, returning to full sales and production within a year. With the prospect of taking over the family business as well as the salmonella issue in the back of his mind, Mr Green applied for a Nuffield Scholarship and was a successful recipient in 2016 with the generous support of Australian Eggs.
“I work in an industry that’s filled with passionate farmers, world class research and consumers who love the product, but the industry needs better mechanisms to future proof itself, particularly when it comes to food safety concerns,” Mr Green said.
“My research was focussed on gaining a greater understanding of the current egg climate including rules and regulations around egg production and the use of eggs in the food service industry. It enabled me to visit world class facilities in the UK, the Netherlands and the United States, and examine their respective operating environments and policies, to ultimately see whether they could be implemented back here in Australia.
Current egg regulation in Australia is piecemeal with no consistent federal legislation.
“We have a voluntary accreditation scheme that requires producers to adhere to best practice standards of production across areas such as hen welfare, food safety, environmental management and egg grading. The problem is that not all egg farmers are part of the scheme and we need to look at ways to encourage greater participation and deliver consistent outcomes across the industry. All the countries I studied have schemes that go above and beyond the minimum. In the United Kingdom for instance, there’s a voluntary accreditation scheme known as the Lion Code, and over 90 per cent of eggs are produced under it. Whilst voluntary, it is robust and carries consumer and regulatory faith. This means that if an issue arises on an egg farm, the government is willing to accept that the farm operates well above minimum best practice standards.”
The Netherlands is considered a world leader in egg production and is self-sufficient in egg production and contributes around 40 per cent of Europe’s total shell egg exports.
“Dutch egg producers are certified under the voluntary quality assurance program, Integraal Keten Beheer (IKB), which involves testing laying hens for salmonella at various points throughout their life. If a test returns positive, there are strict regulations around how the flock and farm are to be managed,” he said.
A mandatory approach is taken in the USA under the federal Egg Rule, administered and overseen by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It applies to any producer with 3,000 or more hens and places strict requirements on them to prevent salmonella.
“Any producer with 3,000 hens on one farm must be registered within 30 days of becoming an egg producer and must comply with a set of rules concerning pullets, biosecurity, pest control, refrigeration, egg testing and record keeping,” he said.
His Nuffield report includes several recommendations for the Australian egg industry, and more broadly, the supply chain to help mitigate the risks around food safety.
“Industry should consider working with regulators to develop a set of requirements that can be applied across the country. This will provide a commercial advantage for best practice producers and, at the same time, gives assurance to the consumer about egg origin, quality and safe production. Anyone preparing or selling food to the public must undergo food safety training with particular attention paid to the use of raw egg products and the risks associated with doing so. The industry has a vital role to play in educating the end user. The customer needs to know that almost always, eggs are an extremely safe product, but more work could be done to build the case for buying an accredited product that’s underpinned by best practice. These are just some of the steps that industry should take, if egg producers are not to be held liable when they have produced a safe, fit for purpose product. Education is a key vehicle that can help us achieve this.”