Food Safety Select: Australian prawns have been secretly tested to confirm their origins


For the last couple of years, secret audits have been conducted on Australian prawns to detect possible substitution fraud. Hundreds of tests have been undertaken across the supply chain to identify any systemic problems.

The testing was funded by the Australian Council of Prawn Fisheries, the Australian Prawn Farmers' Association and the Fisheries Development and Research Corporation through the School of Molecular and Life Sciences at Curtin University. The most recent results reassuringly confirmed that 96% of prawns labelled 'Australian' were true to their origin.

The global seafood trade is vast, and some studies have found as much as a third of products are misrepresented. A recent report by ocean conservation group Oceana, designed to inform a US task force on seafood fraud, found evidence of said fraud in all 55 countries it investigated.

About 60% of prawn consumption in Australia, worth $450 million a year, is imported. But there are plans to change that percentage. At present, the country's farmed prawn sector produces only 7000 tons a year. However, the industry hopes to increase that figure to 25,000 tons by 2025.

Imports will still play an important role, but upping the production of local prawns would immensely benefit the Australian economy and its workforce. Expanding the industry would employ thousands in places like factories, processing plants, or out on boats. For the plan to be successful, there needs to be consumer and industry confidence that a prawn labelled 'Australian' is genuine.

The tests are conducted using a technique called trace element testing. The technology was first developed in the early 70s, but a Perth-based company called Source Certain International improved the method. The tests rely on the idea that everything, living or manufactured, has a trace element signature that reveals where it was grown, lived, or made.

Developed initially to detect gold fraud, trace element testing has been used to authenticate various items or foods, including ethically produced diamonds, sustainable forestry, the provenance of pork, and now the origins of prawns. The technique isn't limited to verification either; it is also used to identify products from individual fisheries such as Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia, Spencer Gulf in South Australia, and the Northern Prawn Fishery.

Using trace element testing to establish provenance not only alerts food authorities about substitution fraud but also strengthens the entire food production chain. As the Australian prawn sector expands, consumers and exporters need to be reassured that the products are sourced from where they are supposed to originate.

The Australian food industry is known for its strict regulations over aspects such as water use, cleanliness, the environment, and general food safety. Essentially, knowing a food product originated in Australia comes with certain guarantees and assurances of standards. However, keeping that trust requires diligence.

Trace element testing will be ongoing to keep prawn supply chains reliable and safe. But it is unlikely to end there. Using fingerprinting technology like this is likely to expand to other foods and goods where provenance is important. 'Australian origin' means something, and proving it will benefit the food industry and consumers alike.

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