Australian semi-dried tomato producers query Victorian DHS’ “speculative approach” to food safety

Posted by James Ferre on 3rd November 2009

Australia’s leading semi-dried tomato producers are adamant that their product is safe despite warnings from Victoria’s Department of Human Services (DHS) about a potential link to hepatitis A. Victorian health authorities said that loose semi-dried tomatoes should not be eaten unless thoroughly cooked, a warning that has upset Australian producers given that the only conclusive link previously found has been to imported produce.

Investigation

An investigation was instigated recently as the number of Victorian Hepatitis A cases was up considerably on last year. As a result, the DHS has since renewed their warnings over a possible link between semi-dried tomatoes and an outbreak of hepatitis A – following a further 23 cases of the infectious disease diagnosed in the past week. Earlier this year, a warning went out because of suspected risks of imported product.

Victoria’s chief health officer Dr John Carnie said that so far this year there had been 200 notifications of hepatitis A, compared to 74 at the same time last year.

“We still are unclear as to why there has been a recent spike in cases in Victoria,” he advised in a statement.

He added that around two-thirds of recent cases had indicated they had eaten semi-dried tomatoes at some point prior to contracting the disease. However, he admitted that finding a link was far from an exact science.

“Because the incubation period for hepatitis A could be as long as two months, trying to get people who fell ill to accurately pin down what and where they actually ate this product can be difficult,” Dr Carnie said.

“However, we are continuing to work with the manufacturers and suppliers of semi-dried tomatoes to try and identify the source.”

The department is advising consumers to cook semi-dried tomatoes to guarantee safety, with the advice coming five months after a similar warning when the latest Hepatitis A outbreak was discovered.

They added, however, that semi-dried tomatoes sold at the major supermarkets are almost certainly safe for normal consumption.

“The outbreak seems to be confined mainly to Victoria which appears to rule out produce sold through major supermarket chains which is distributed nationwide,” Dr Carnie advised.

Leading Australian semi-dried tomato suppliers (who supply the major supermarkets) are adamant their products, which have been cleared in testing, are safe and have been disappointed with the handling of the situation. The widely reported story, which largely ignores the link to imported product and the ruling out of any link to the major supermarkets, has many concerned that it could have a major detrimental impact on the industry and threaten jobs.

It was only last year that American tomato growers saw first-hand the crippling impact of a food safety scare on their business. A link between tomatoes and a salmonella outbreak was reported in the press causing a sales decline and many farmers to destroy crops. It was later discovered, however, that jalapeno peppers were to blame, with tomato growers understandably aggrieved and many finding it difficult to recover from the loss of business.

Health authorities in Victoria (and Australia) have not issued any food recall despite the warnings being issued by the DHS. Some key Australian supermarket operators have expressed concerns privately and have suggested that DHS may be under-resourced. One operator told Australian Food News that the DHS seems to be adopting a “speculative approach” to food safety instead of more thorough testing of product for viral contamination or serious epidemiological investigation that would be capable of tracing back the real cause for the latest outbreak. Like their American counterparts, the Australian tomato producers and processors may well be concerned that they could unfairly bear the brunt of premature pronouncements or speculative warnings from government officials before the substantiated evidence is produced.