Australia's Reputation for Clean Food: Deserved or Not?

There are many posts on the Community about fears of imports from various places, that also extol the quality and safety of locally produced foods. Here is a snapshot of our own, despite our reputation.

That we may not be the worst would be rationalisation. Is it a case of look over there at them, not over here at us?

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This article might be a bit of scaremongering.

In relation to foods, the issue is risk to the consumer not what is used. Chemicals (synthetic or natural) used in agriculture, textile/food production and processing can be considered toxic, but there are controls in place which ensure that the risks at time that the products are used/consumed by the consumer, the risks are extremely low or zero. A simple measure is withholding times where products are not sold for consumption within a period that risks to the consumer have the potential to occur.

There is also a difference between clean food and low environmental impact production. While agricultural chemicals (synthetic or natural) can be used in the production of safe (clean) foods, they may have an environmental impact where they are used. Consideration needs to be given to how to best manage pests or have efficient use of inputs associated with production and the impacts on production where chemicals (synthetic or natural) aren’t used. Consideration also needs to be given to the receiving environment, including risks to populations nearby where chemicals are used. In many European countries the risks are substantially higher due to higher population densities and higher proportion of the population living near intensive/extensive agricultural production where chemicals are used.

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Perhaps a bit of a scare but you seem to imply the other countries that banned those pesticides probably did so just because they had little else to legislate or they are wrong and Australia is right.

Such issues are mentioned in the ‘scare mongering’.

Many people read The Guardian. The purpose of the topic is to open the subject for perspective, which you have added.

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Does clean food include food handling? If anyone have any data of the effectiveness of food handling systems in comparable countries it would be interesting

My reason for asking is I read many stories of ‘salad bar poisoning’ and similar problems in the USA but not so many here. We had the salami factory poisoning some years ago but it seems rare.

Is this just because the US is 12 times bigger or does our media not report such incidents, or some other statistical quirk, or is it real that food handling is better here?

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It may have some relation to food business inspections in the USA are usually public record, here they are secret in most locales unless the business was successfully prosecuted for failing to adhere to standards. In the US it is generally accepted the public has a right to know. Here it seems weighted to ‘privacy’. The dots would be media’s ability to know about a potential or real food poisoning event and be able to link it to a business there as compared to here.

American style salad bars are also uncommon in Australia, another difference re ‘salad bar poisoning’ events.

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Perhaps more ‘scare mongering’ or perhaps an explanation why we are ‘different’ to the EU? The chemicals might be the same or different but we seem to lack proactivity and rely on reactivity at the local level. No oversight, no data, no statistics, no problem, or?

edit:

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Thanks to PhilT for raising this matter. It is a subject that is important, and worth a discussion.
I did read the original story in the Guardian - and, I confess, my BS antennae went on full alert. There are a number of questions arising from this article that I felt were skirted by the author.

  1. Just because a chemical is not banned, does NOT mean it is widely used (or, used at all).
  2. Who cares if a chemical is used (a rhetorical crudity!), if it isn’t actually MEASURABLE in the foods? Surely, the actual question is whether consumers are exposed to the chemical - not whether it has been used (or not)? Thus, as noted by phb, we have mandatory withholding periods designed specifically to ensure residues are “disappeared”. Additionally, have the foodstuffs been washed or otherwise treated in such a way that residues are no longer present? …and so on…
  3. Notwithstanding my previous “points”, presumably the ultimate measure of effect/harm/undesirability is human health effects? What do the health statistics say at a demographic level? Are there actually significant numbers of people suffering adverse health effects from our “dangerous chemicals”? Would there be significant numbers of people suffering adverse health effects if we did NOT employ such chemicals (eg. listeria etc, as pointed out elsewhere)?
    None of this is to say that we should be encouraging the widespread and/or unregulated use of chemicals in our foodchain. I am firmly of the view that we should do the minimum possible level of tinkering with nature whenever possible. And, I’m all for making it challenging for anybody to introduce new chemicals into our food production - you should have to make a very compelling case.
    I am also unimpressed by sloppy journalism intended to push an agenda or point of view, and that fails to examine a sensitive (and important) issue with subtlety and finesse. Dispassionate and disinterested journalism is more convincing, more constructive, and does not treat its readership like a herd of nervous nellies.
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A worthwhile observation. Harm minimisation.

We often overlook the other impacts of chemical use in food production. Chemicals including irrigation, fertilisers and crop fungicides change the soil chemistry. The microbiology of soil is important for long term sustainability, of agricultural as well as more natural outcomes. The use of pesticides has long been debated as to potential for environmental harm vs human benefit.

As an aside the effective use and application of most chemical products requires the use of adjuvants, (spray additives). These include various crop oils and surfactants intended to improve the uptake of the chemicals in use. Those I’m familiar with can be extremely hazardous even in very small quantities when spread through runoff or drift into adjoining areas.

How well water quality and the environmental impacts are monitored for losses is not going to show up in in testing of product offered for sale. On-site testing over time is the only way to know for sure. The industry mostly relies on following recommended or advisory practice as safe and low cost. Similar as for consumable product the assumption is that following certain practices negates the need for monitoring the outcomes. It reminds me of the days before RBT where is was onLy after it had all gone wrong that anyone set about testing anyone.

It’s interesting to consider what might be used in the average vineyard, and mostly lost into the grape growing environment.

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Mark_m, I hadn’t even considered adjuvants and soil/environmental effects (i.e. non-human issues). Thanks for pointing out these additional complications.
So, my original observations/questions might still be valid - but, quite evidently, they are far from sufficiently comprehensive. This is a complex and challenging issue indeed.

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There is a history of agriculture advisors promoting pesticides that then turned out to be harmful. My place has DDT and dieldrin contamination from potato cropping that makes the site unacceptable for cattle grazing (because they eat quite a bit of soil). I only know this because an agriculture advisor was invited to the local goat club.

I’m of the view that Australians assume they are much better protected by safety regulation than they are.

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There are many examples of past practice no longer being acceptable or safe. My scant knowledge and some reading suggests dieldrin and DDT use for control of potato pests in crops has long been discontinued, early 1980’s before a total ban. The use of Organochlorine pesticides (OCPs) was also very common around the home in the 1980’s.

What seems important if one needs to know with some certainty is to get your soil tested. Assume you have done so? It may be that your soil is perfectly safe for growing crops or even livestock. Every property will have it’s own unique history. Frequency of use, duration and time since last use.

Historically, many of the problem pesticides weren’t tested to the same extent or required statutory approvals as that which exists today. Many were thought to be safe, without thorough testing to prove this was the case. An example being DDT was used to treat body lice and sprayed over individuals. It was done because DDT proved to kill lice (which didn’t have resistance to the chemical) and those being sprayed didn’t show ill effects immediately after being sprayed. After a little time, DDT was known to be an endocrine disrupter, such was never tested (as the test didn’t exist) before its use on humans. It was also thought to be an effective pesticide due to its persistence in the environment. Today we know persistence causes a wide range of issues (bioaccumulation, land contamination etc) and today as part of approval processes, there needs to be demonstrated that chemicals used breakdown readily in the environment/soil.

As a result of historical chemical use, especially those like dieldrin, DDT and organophosphate pesticides, many of the regimes in place today are there to prevent a recurrence of what occurred in the past. What has happened in the past doesn’t apply today or be used as evidence there is still the same problems today. The CSIRO has a popular article about the evolution of agricultural chemicals which may be of interest:

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The Ag advisor kindly got my paddock soil tested for free. I guess I am living with the legacy of his department’s advice. Yes, dieldrin was used for termite control and organophosphates were used by home gardeners too. Soil testing isn’t cheap to do privately and many people aren’t fully aware of their property’s chemical use history. My point was however, that following current advice doesn’t ensure they don’t discover (or are ignoring currently) evidence of harms you would wish to know about.

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“What has happened in the past doesn’t apply today or be used as evidence there is still the same problems today. The CSIRO has a popular article about the evolution of agricultural chemicals which may be of interest”
ECOS – 11 May 21

Thanks for sharing this article. Your assurances appear at odds with its conclusions:

"Scientists continue to raise concerns regarding wide-spread pesticide use on farm worker health, the environment and resistance evolution. These concerns often reflect the fact that regulatory systems were designed to mitigate acute risks, but do not address the impacts that wide-spread and cumulative use of multiple chemicals have in our farming systems today.

Increased understanding of unintended consequences of pesticide use has led to development of ‘an integrated approach to manage weed, diseases and pests’. While integrated approaches have not been universally adopted, there are some successful examples.

Agri-chemicals will continue to be used in some way to address pest problems for the foreseeable future, but we must find ways to make their negative consequences less far-reaching and long-term. Changes are also needed to mitigate resistance evolution and extend the practical effective lifetime of pesticides." A short history of agricultural chemical usage and development – ECOS

It is worth reading the whole article as it concurs with my points if discussion above, including…

and

The environmental (including the health impacts of those in direct contact with pesticides) is a separate discussion point to clean food.

The earlier post raised DDT and dieldrin as examples of why there is a current problem. As indicated above, there were many lessons learnt from these chemicals. In particular with DDT the CSIRO article states:

A broad-spectrum insecticide, DDT was one of the first synthetic organic pesticides to be released for widespread use. Despite initially proving to be of great benefit for pest control, the cautionary tale of DDT is well known, owing in large part to the 1962 publication of “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, which documented both the ecological devastation caused by indiscriminate use of DDT and the problems emerging due to the widespread evolution of insect pest resistance. Its legacy continues to be unearthed to this day.

Increasing understanding and awareness of the environmental and health effects associated with pesticides has led to better regulation, use and monitoring of agricultural chemical usage. In Australia, the responsibility for regulation of new products rests with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), while environmental monitoring is largely the remit of state government agencies.

Regulation and monitoring have led to the withdrawal of many chemicals from the market, and increased effort to develop pesticides with low residual toxicity and increased specificity to the target pest. However, increased regulation has increased the costs and slowed the development of new chemicals. Chemicals that leave persistent residues have been replaced with alternatives that in many cases are more immediately toxic to humans and other species.

There has been significant regulatory response since the days that dieldrin, DDT and organophosphate pesticides were widely used. If the same pesticides were put up for approval for use under Australia’s current regulatory framework, they would not be approved for use. This is why ‘What has happened in the past doesn’t apply today or be used as evidence there is still the same problems today.’

Also do dieldrin, DDT and organophosphate still have lingering environmental and potential clean food consequences? Yes they do and your own experiences of contaminated soil/land show this is the case and that (clean) food production can be restricted in such lands.

A bit of counterpoint. F&V washers, both portable and built in seem common S Korea and perhaps other countries.


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Is it quantibly ultrasonic? Does it gently bath your tomatoes in ultraviolet to bring them to their peak of perfection? Is it networked so you can start it on the way home? Does it come with a pre-paid and addressed delivery bag so you can send it to landfill when the novelty wears off? Unless it has everything I don’t want it.

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Many Asian countries the irrigation water, soil conditioners and fertilisers contain human pathogens which can cause infection from fresh food ingestion - especially fresh foods which aren’t peeled. If one has travelled to Asia, there are many warning about eating fresh (uncooked) foods and their risks.

F&V cleaners are widely marketed to consumers in these countries to reduce health risks of foods. When living in China, some companies also advertised sterilising baths (using weak chlorine or other sterilising solutions) to sterilise foods before consumption - the same process often used in Australian food outlets for higher risks foods such as salad greens etc which have had contact with soil or pathogen contaminated water.

Many modern pesticides are systemic, and if food is consumed within withholding periods where concentration of pesticides may be above levels recommended for consumption, a sterilising water bath will have no effect on changing the level within washed foods.

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What might be considered “harms” by one person might be called a benefit by others.
Are you aware many F&V products are subject to chemical treatments post harvest?

EG

There are good reasons to do so. Some include controlling the spread of pests and diseases from one growing area to another during transport/shipping. Another is intended to reduce losses during storage.

It may be effective to discuss specific examples, an individual chemical and where it is used. That assumes there is a genuine concern about the individual product.

While dating from 2013 and only known because of a FOI request it reinforces a mentality of what we don’t know will neither hurt government nor impact growers.