THE human infection of Hepatitis A through frozen berries from China and Chile has prompted calls for more stringent produce accreditation for imported fruits and vegetables.
Last weekend Patties Foods recalled its Nanna’s Frozen Mixed Berries one kilogram product on advice from the Victorian Health Department over potential Hepatitis A contamination.
At least 10 people - three in Victoria, five in Queensland and two in New South Wales - have so far become sick with Hepatitis A after eating Nanna's frozen mixed berries.
Nanna's berries are packed in China and Chile. Consumers with concerns can call the Patties consumer hotline on 1800 650 069, between 7am and 9pm.
Strict local standards need maintaining
FRESH produce processors and business owners should take the Nanna’s frozen berry incident as a wake-up call according to one food safety expert.
Technology manager for the Fresh Produce Safety Centre Australia and New Zealand, Richard Bennett says those in the industry should obtain a copy of the Horticulture Industry Crisis Management Guidelines and never assume it could never happen to them.
The Fresh Produce Safety Centre Australia and New Zealand, a research, education and outreach body, was opened last year in Sydney as a joint partnership between the Produce Marketing Association and the University of Sydney.
Apart from a full career working in numerous aspects of horticulture, Mr Bennett has developed and implemented Approved Supplier Programs mainly for processors, and implemented SQF 2000 and Freshcare in fruit, vegetable, nut and wine grape businesses.
Mr Bennett said research indicates that any food that doesn’t have a “kill step” (a step that kills human pathogens) is considered to be high risk and could host human pathogens, in the right (or wrong) circumstances.
“Because berries are so fragile and washing would both damage the fruit and greatly reduce shelf life, there is no kill step for fresh and frozen berries,” he said. Freezing is not considered a kill step.
“Rather than berries being prone to hosting hepatitis, it’s more likely to be producers with poor controls over contamination, and endemic pathogens, that are prone to hosting foodborne illness,” Mr Bennett said.
Ausveg, Choice and Raspberries and Blackberries Australia (RABA) have all used the frozen berries recall to urge political leaders to consider improving country of origin labelling.
Mr Bennett said these were fair calls and any food safety incident reinforces the need for consumers to have sufficient information to make informed choices about the food they will purchase.
“Hence why the ‘local and imported ingredients’ line does not wash with most in the horticultural industry, let alone the debate around the qualifications regarding 'Made in, Product of, Produced in', etcetera,” he said.
“My understanding is that the recalled products were labelled Product of China so possibly the only argument in this case is the size of the font and the need to be conspicuously obvious.”
Compliance call for foreign berries
"HORRIFIED" was the word Allan Mahoney used to describe his reaction as he watched the Nanna’s frozen berries recall crisis unfold last weekend.
As a major player within the blueberry industry, Mr Mahoney said it was deeply disturbing to see the cases of Hepatitis A confirmed within people who had consumed the frozen berries.
Mr Mahoney is the Queensland value add manager for Perfection Fresh based in Bundaberg, which houses one of the northern most blueberry production sites in the country.
He said Australian growers would not want to be associated with anything like this in any way, shape or form.
“We’d love to put product into every consumers’ fridge just to show them the real taste of clean, compliant berries,” he said.
“Any bad press is not a good thing. Any bad press has an impact.”
Mr Mahoney, who is also the chair of Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers, said of most concern was the fact tainted product could enter Australia without being subject to the strict food safety requirements local producers must abide by.
He said food health-standard accreditation in Australia is hard earned and questioned why imported product should have any less demanding requirements before being placed onto supermarket shelves or into freezers.
“We have one of the most stringent food safety accreditation schemes in the world. All the chain stores have stringent audit systems,” he said.
Mr Mahoney said there are countries that grow berries particularly for the frozen market.
“I’m very biased when it comes to Australian product,” he said.
“We are here for the consumer. It’s all about the consumers. Unfortunately overseas, it’s about the numbers.”