THE frozen berries maker embroiled in the national Hepatitis A outbreak has been telling customers it does not always use Australian fruit because of "quality" concerns, outraging local growers.
The revelation comes as five more people were diagnosed with Hepatitis A after eating frozen berries on Wednesday, bumping the national tally to 14 and intensifying consumer anger.
Schools and childcare centres across the country have also been caught up in the health scare, with some issuing parents with letters about their use of the potentially contaminated fruit.
In an email reply to a customer concerned about source countries two years ago, Patties Foods said: "Australian growers cannot always provide either the quantity or the quality that we require on an ongoing basis."
Local berry growers are outraged by the comment, saying it is a poor excuse from a company buying cheap produce.
"I certainly dispute that. We have premium, excellent quality berries that are now available 12 months of the year," said Jonathan Eccles, executive officer of Raspberries and Blackberries Australia. "It comes down to quantity and the price they're willing to pay. Not quality."
The email also revealed Patties' "policy was to acquire Australian fruit wherever possible," despite the fact in the past two years it sourced berries from China, New Zealand, Canada, Chile, United States, Greece, Turkey and Serbia.
The four recalled products – one-kilogram packs of Nanna's Raspberries and Frozen Mixed Berries, as well as 300-gram and 500g packs of Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries – were largely sourced and packed in China.
School principals across New South Wales are on high alert after the Education Department instructed them to immediately "remove and discard" the potentially contaminated berry products and monitor for potential cases.
A department spokesman would not comment on whether any school had reported a potential Hepatitis A case.
In Victoria, 34 government schools have advised department that some of their students have consumed the berries.
On Wednesday, a South Australian childcare centre feared it had served smoothies with recalled berries as an afternoon snack, the ABC reported.
It is one of nine schools and childcare centres in the state that notified parents about the potential health risk.
The state of China's water
About 90 per cent of China's groundwater is polluted, 65pc severely so, with contaminates such as pesticides, fertilisers and petrochemicals, a report from the Centre of International Security Studies at Sydney University showed.
Pressure is mounting on politicians to toughen country-of-origin labelling laws, with consumer group Choice launching a petition to end the "labelling farce" aimed at federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.
Patties Foods chief executive Steven Chaur told Fairfax Media that labelling laws were "stringent" and adequate.
But Choice spokesman Tom Godfrey said: "We've had inquiry after inquiry on this issue. Year after year it rates as a top concern of Australian consumers. It's time for action.
"Confused claims such as 'Packed in Australia using imported fruit' or 'Made in Australia using local and imported ingredients' offer very little information about a product's origin and are largely meaningless to consumers."
As of Wednesday evening, there were 14 victims of the outbreak: five in NSW, five in Queensland, three in Victoria, and one in Western Australia.
Frozen berry products have been shooting up grocery sales charts, jumping to 10th place in the "all frozen" category in the past year, according to Nielsen research.
The federal health department, federal agriculture department and Food Standards Australia and New Zealand are working with state and territory health authorities and the food industry to resolve this public health issue, a spokesman said.
The first recall was issued nationally on Friday, February 13. On Tuesday, Mr Chaur said the raspberries were the common link and may be the culprit.
Symptoms of Hepatitis A can include abdominal pain, loss of appetite, yellow skin and eyes, dark urine and pale faeces, tiredness and a mild headache.