Quality assurance schemes for fresh produce

Page last updated: Monday, 8 May 2023 - 2:10pm

Please note: This content may be out of date and is currently under review.

Fresh food businesses are faced with the challenge of creating a food safety culture, maintaining best practice and retaining customer confidence, while effectively managing overall costs.

Quality assurance in the food production sector is rigorous but defining quality assurance, knowing and assessing the food safety risks and doing your research on code compliance is a step in the right direction.

Defining quality assurance

Quality assurance (QA) schemes for fresh produce are designed to enable producers to demonstrate that their on-farm practices allow them to produce safe food products that meet Australian food safety standards under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (the Code).

Non-compliance with food safety laws can lead to fines, loss of business opportunity or even closure.

Fresh produce can include meat, fruit, vegetables, herbs and nuts supplied for sale in the wholesale, retail and food service sectors, or used for further processing. For more information about quality assurance schemes for meat see the Meat and Livestock Australia website.

Since 2000, the number of QA schemes has increased significantly. The main aim for QA schemes is to encourage producers to think about their on-farm practices and how they impact the safety of the fresh food they produce and sell.

The hazards

On the farm there are a number of food safety hazards associated with producing fresh produce.

Hazards can arise during the growing, harvesting, packing, storage or distribution stages of production and are categorised as microbiological, chemical or physical.

Microbiological food safety hazards

Microbiological food safety pathogens include some bacteria, viruses, parasites, algae and fungi. Contamination can arise from a poor understanding of:

  • the use of untreated organic animal manure used as fertiliser or soil ameliorant during production
  • pathogen contamination of picked produce prior to packing
  • waste management
  • water as a pathogen carrier
  • good hygiene practices after eating, smoking and ablutions
  • cleaning and sanitation
  • pest management to control pathogen numbers in picking, harvesting and packing facilities.

Chemical food safety hazards

The chemicals we use in our production systems can become food safety hazards if not used as intended by the manufacturer and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA).

Registration with APVMA is the process required by law for each compound offered for sale.

Chemicals that could become hazards include fungicides, pesticides, herbicides, cleaners and sanitisers.

Food safety hazards could occur where chemical residues in excess of their registration design limits are exceeded — termed maximum residue limits (MRL).

MRL violations in fresh produce occur when chemicals are not used as detailed on their labels.

Produce grown in soils contaminated with heavy metals can also be a food safety risk and there are residue limits set in law — termed extraneous residue limits (ERL).

ERL violations occur on fresh produce where heavy metal comes in contact with, or is produced in, contaminated soil.

Chemical food safety hazards can be caused by:

  • incorrect storage or mixing of chemicals
  • chemicals not used according to manufacturers/APVMA requirements
  • withholding periods not observed
  • spray drift from applications in adjacent crops
  • equipment not cleaned between uses
  • accidental spillage or unsuitable storage conditions
  • food grade cleaners and sanitisers not used in food production systems
  • planting of ground grown fresh produce in soil contaminated with heavy metals.

Physical food safety hazards

Physical food safety hazards found in or on fresh produce include foreign objects from the production environment, equipment or inputs due to human handling.

Sources of physical contamination may be:

  • harvesting of ground crops during wet weather
  • dirty, damaged or broken equipment
  • waste management
  • careless or untrained staff.

Other sources can include stones, glass, sand, sprinkler parts, needles, metal shavings, bandaids, cigarette butts and jewellery.

Assessing the risks

For businesses involved in the production of fresh produce it is imperative that they can demonstrate they have assessed all food safety hazards on-farm.

QA systems incorporating the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points' (HACCP) 12 step method are required by law as a food safety tool.

This system allows you to identify where food hazards may occur in your system, their risk to a finished product and how they could be managed to prevent or minimise the risk of contamination.

There are ten key input areas where food safety risks may need to be managed:

  • planting or crop resource material
  • chemical inputs
  • fertiliser and soil additives
  • water inputs
  • allergens
  • facilities, equipment, containers, materials and vehicles
  • animals and pests
  • people
  • product identification, traceability and recall
  • suppliers.

The risk of contamination can vary considerably and may depend on the type of produce grown, the methods used in production (above or below ground) and the location and its history.

Record keeping and traceability

Being able to show you are in control of the food safety risks you have identified is required by law.

You are also required to track the movement and management of your produce from production through to the point of sale.

Traceability puts you in control and allows you to defend your fresh produce if an issue were to arise.

Know it to be true - code compliance and verification

The Code describes that food safety is best ensured through the identification and control of hazards in the production, manufacturing and handling of food as described in the HACCP system.

This system has been adopted by both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) Codex Alimentarius Commission, rather than relying on end product standards alone.

Under the Code food producers are required to:

  • Produce safe food that complies with the legal obligations.
  • Ensure that each food business has a food safety plan that identifies, documents and records management practices to manage the identified food safety hazards in the business.
  • Ensure that a person in authority in each business is trained in food safety management practices relevant to the food product being produced and its intended use.
  • Ensure that finished produce is independently tested to verify that it complies with limits for chemical and microbiological food safety contamination detailed in the Code.
  • Ensure that the food safety program is implemented and reviewed by the food business and is subject to periodic audit by a suitably qualified food safety auditor.

The following external industry standards are now generally accepted by supply chain partners and major retailers and are applicable to the range of supplier partners in the sector:

  • Freshcare — suitable for fresh produce producers and owner packers (prescriptive).
  • Safe Quality Food (SQF) 9th edition — suitable for use by all sectors of the food industry, from primary production to transport and distribution. It replaced the SQF 2000 Code edition 6 and the SQF 1000 Code edition 5.
  • British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Standard — suitable for fresh produce packing facility.

Testing for contamination


The key reason to test fresh produce for chemical contamination is to demonstrate that the chemicals in use are being applied according to the instructions.

Produce is generally tested (verified) after harvest just prior to being available to the consumer. Guidelines for sample sizes are available from the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

Not every chemical known is tested. Standard chemical residue screens are now used in each test that incorporate most of the at-risk compound groups.

These screens are adjusted as new compounds come onto the market.

Testing is required at least once per year or per crop rotation to be able to show food safety auditors that the chemical application program is working and to verify to buyers that the management system is in control.

The two key points to consider when using chemicals on fresh produce are the:

  • Withholding period — the time between the last chemical application and harvest. These are specified on the label and are put in place to make sure that levels are below the MRL.
  • Maximum residue limits — established by the APVMA and is defined as the maximum concentration (mg/kg) of a residue legally allowed on produce after it has been sprayed on-farm.

Chemicals considered to have a high MRL risk include those that are sprayed close to or after harvest, have a long withholding period, or are rated a schedule six or higher.


Government regulations in relation to microbial contamination apply to processed foods (for example dairy and meat) and intensive horticulture as well as sprouted seed and eggs for consumption due to their nature of being a high food safety risk.

At present there are no microbial contamination limits in law.

To date, in the fresh produce industry there have been some food borne illnesses and deaths in relation to fresh produce that are a concern.

They were mainly where faecal contamination (e-coli and salmonella species) occurred within ready-to-eat produce that had no micro-kill step before consumption. These relate to orange juice (Adelaide, SA 1996), fruit salad (Hunter Valley, NSW 2006) and lettuce (California, 2010, Victoria, 2016).

Consequently, in the last decade in Australia and more recently in Europe and the US a great deal of work has been done to establish micro-limits for water use in production and post-harvest on finished produce to minimise the risk of food borne illness.

The Freshcare Standard has the most current microbial recommendations for all parts of the fresh production process and being 'prescriptive' can be used as a guide.

Standard micro-screens are now used parallel to chemical residue testing to verify that micro-levels relative to the produce type are under control.

Testing is required at least once per year or per crop rotation to show food safety auditors that the microbial management program is working and to verify to buyers that the management system is in control.

Choice of laboratory

When choosing a laboratory you need to select one that is technically competent.

It should have National Association of Testing Authorities accreditation for analysing pesticide residues and heavy metals or microbiological contamination.

To find a laboratory or testing service check with your supply chain partners and food safety auditor (as there are only one or two in each state that supply the necessary service) or search this website.

Due to the volume of tests they put through you will be able to attain better rates than if you performed each test individually.

Quality assurance schemes can be confusing, but they are a great way for you to assess the potential on-farm hazards and sources of contamination to guarantee the safety of the fresh food produced and to protect your brand.

Recommended further reading

Fresh Produce Safety Centre. Guidelines for Fresh Produce Food Safety 2019.

In Western Australia, the responsibility for ensuring food and food businesses meet the Australia and New Zealand Food Code lies with the Department of Health, with Local Government the enforcement agency.  Further information is available on the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) website or from your local council.