An Observational Assessment of Australian Apple Production Practices for Microbial Control

07 April 2021

Food safety management criteria are often described in general terms rather than specific actions and potentially introduces subjectivity to interpretation and implementation. In the tree fruit sector, management systems would be more useful if developed with specific reference to production and processing practices used. There is insufficient evidence that requirements for the Australian tree fruit industry are appropriate to control foodborne pathogen contamination of ready-to-eat products. Thus, the purpose of this study was to explore industry interpretations of food safety guidelines by describing the application of controls in Australian orchards and packhouses and to evaluate production practices by characterising potential microbial risks in the apple industry, quantifying microbial load in wash water and fruit, and assessing fruit quality as indicators. Thirteen orchards and packhouses across Australia were visited from July 2016 to April 2018 to observe apple orchard practices, packhouse systems, wash water controls, general hygiene and to evaluate the presence of Escherichia coli, Salmonella spp. and Listeria spp. on multiple apple cultivars. The assessment revealed that the inconsistent application of water sanitation resulted in variable control of wash water quality and hygiene, but the prevalence of pathogens on apples was less than 2%. Variation in practices could increase the risk of foodborne illness to consumers if contamination occurs. The Australian apple industry could benefit from a better understanding of effective risk mitigation strategies, consistent industry application of food safety controls and improved evidence of controls achieving desired food safety outcomes.