Vulnerable populations

When it comes to regulating the safety of the food supply, food standards are broadly based upon the needs of the general population.

Some exceptions include standards for foods for the very young, which have specific labelling standards established to protect them. For example, in Standard 1.2.3 of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, there is a requirement to label certain cereal-based beverages and evaporated and dried milk products with statements that these products are not suitable as a complete milk replacement for children under the age of five years.

Importantly, there is a much larger group of people that are considered vulnerable when it comes to the risk from foodborne illness. Dairy manufacturers need to be aware of the special sensitivities of this group.

What is meant by the term vulnerable population?

Vulnerable people are those at most risk of getting food poisoning. Typically these are people with a weakened immune system, and includes the elderly (generally people 65-70 or older), the very young (babies and infants), and those with poor immunity from underlying medical conditions (e.g. people with transplants or cancer patients) or through medical treatment (e.g. dialysis, immuno-supressing drugs, or chemotherapy). Pregnant women are also at heightened risk from certain types of foodborne illnesses and the impact of these illnesses may be more serious.

YOPI is an acronym that is sometimes used to describe these vulnerable sub-populations – it covers the young, old, pregnant, and immunosuppressed. YOPIs may be prone to foodborne infections because their immune system is either impaired or not fully developed.

What percentage of the Australian population can be classified as YOPIs?

There are no definitive figures on the YOPI population, but at the 2013 Census, over 3.3 million Australians (>14% of the population) were over 65 years of age.

Almost 1.5 million Australians (6% of the population) were four years old or younger.

Both these sub-populations have reduced immune responses and are considered to be more at risk of foodborne illness from certain pathogens than younger, immuno-competent people. These numbers are further bolstered by people on dialysis, receiving treatment for cancer, HIV positive, who have undergone organ transplants, and a host of other people with underlying health conditions.

How are the risks communicated to YOPIs?

YOPIs need to make informed decisions when selecting and preparing food. Mistakes can have serious consequences for these vulnerable groups. In adverse circumstances, infections by Listeria or Salmonella can cause serious health problems and even death.

The management of risks to vulnerable populations is typically addressed by targeted communication. State Health Departments publish information and brochures advising vulnerable populations about the risks. Pregnant women are often well informed of the risks from Listeria, but other vulnerable groups are much more difficult to identify and target.

Carers or institutions catering for vulnerable people carry a special responsibility when selecting and preparing meals.

Good advice on food choices is available on websites such as the Department of Health and Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Guidance promotes avoidance of foods from delicatessen cabinets and selected dairy products made from pasteurised milk because they present a higher risk to vulnerable people.

What are the responsibilities of dairy manufacturers?

Manufacturers of dairy products must consider their target market, and whether they have consumers with an increased risk of foodborne illness. Foods for vulnerable populations may require special processing and handling, and effective product testing regimes. Attention should be paid to objectively determining safe product shelf life under expected conditions of storage, transport, and marketing (particularly after the product leaves the manufacturers premises).

Where products are permitted to contain raw milk, there needs to be a label statement to the effect that the product has not been pasteurised.

Reading

Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code - Standard 1.2.3 - Mandatory Warning and Advisory Statements and Declarations

   Download a pdf version here