Hepatitis A crisis in frozen berries recall
Australian food manufacturer Patties Foods is facing serious consequences of some consumers have fallen ill with Hepatitis A after eating a batch of its Nanna’s Frozen Mixed Berries product. The Company has extended its food recall to a second brand, Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries.
The Company said the recall of the Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries 300g (all Batches up to and including Best Before 10 December 2017) and 500g (all Batches up to and including Best Before 6 October 2017) plastic bag and cardboard box packs was “a precautionary measure, in the interests of public safety”. The Creative Gourmet recall follows the announcement yesterday of a Consumer Recall of all batches of Nanna’s Frozen Mixed Berries 1kg packs with a Best Before date up to and including 22 November 2016, on advice from the Victorian Health Department of potential Hepatitis A contamination.
The products are made from four berries – strawberries, raspberries, blackberries from China, and blueberries from Chile – packed in China and distributed in Australia by Patties, based in Bairnsdale. It is distributed mainly to Woolworths, Coles and IGA supermarkets. It is unclear whether the contamination occurred in China or Chile.
“While our quality control testing to date has not revealed any concerns with the food safety of either product, further detailed testing is being done and the recall is an important step to ensure public safety and confidence,” said Steven Chaur, Patties Foods MD and CEO. “We have decided that all our frozen Mixed Berries should be recalled until such time as we receive the results of further laboratory tests,” he said.
A detailed testing process is continuing with health authorities.
Imported from China and Chile
Patties Foods shifted the sourcing and packing of its frozen-fruits brands to China about a year ago, following a strategic review of its business revenues.
Australian Food News reported in February 2014 that Patties Foods had announced a revenue increase of only 0.9 per cent for the first half of the 2014 financial year, saying its results had been heavily impacted by the loss of a major supermarket private label frozen fruit contract. However in August 2014, Australian Food News reported that Patties Foods had seen a big leap in profits for the full financial year, reported a profit of $16.7 million for the year ending 30 June 2014, up from $4.8 million in the previous year. The Company reported that its profit growth was in part due to branded growth from the Nanna’s frozen fruit brand, which grew 92 per cent as a result of “innovative new product launches” with high customer penetration, while the frozen fruit category grew by 36 per cent.
Hepatitis A food poisoning
The recall of the two Patties Foods mixed berries brands followed notifications of Hepatits A cases in four adults — three in Victoria and one in New South Wales.
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Dr Rosemary Lester said frozen berries had been implicated in past outbreaks of Hepatits A virus infection.
Hepatitis A virus can take between 15 to 50 days to develop and the onset of the illness ranges from early January to mid-February.
“Hepatitis A virus infection is uncommon, and normally associated with travel to countries affected by endemic hepatitis A,” Dr Lester said. “The only common link between the cases is consumption of this product – there is no overseas travel or common restaurant exposure,” she said.
“Sampling of the product will be undertaken to identify the virus, but it is difficult to find hepatitis A virus even in a contaminated batch,” Dr Lester said.
Hepatitis A is spread when traces of faecal matter containing the virus contaminate hands, objects, water or food and is then taken in by mouth. Symptoms of hepatitis A include abdominal pain, nausea, fever and chills and yellow skin or eyes.
Recall sparks Country-of-Origin labelling debate
The recall of the Patties Foods Mixed Berries products has prompted calls for action on Country-of-Origin Labelling (CoOL) on foods in Australia.
The Australian Made Campaign has encouraged consumers to spend more time checking the country-of-origin labels on food products, while consumer group CHOICE and vegetable farmers’ representative body AusVeg have called for Government action on CoOL.
“This issue exemplifies the differences in health and safety standards for the production of food around the world,” said Ian Harrison, Australian Made Chief Executive. “Australia’s clean, green environment helps produce exceptionally high quality food, but moreover, our strict regulatory framework ensures Australian-grown produce is also safe to eat, and we encourage consumers to consider this factor when choosing what to buy,” he said.
The Australian Made Campaign is the not-for-profit organisation that administers and promotes Australia’s registered country-of-origin certification trade mark, the Australian Made, Australian Grown kangaroo logo.
“Consumers should look for the logo to be sure what they are buying is genuinely Aussie,” Mr Harrison said. “Imported food products which are packed in Australia – as was the case in this instance – do not qualify to use the symbol,” he said.
Call for Government action by CHOICE consumer group
CHOICE has called on the Federal Government to reconsider Country-of-Origin Labelling recommendations made in October 2014 by the Parliamentary Standing Committee in light of the current food recall.
“Unfortunately for consumers the Committee missed an opportunity to simplify the system and this latest issue illustrates the challenge we have in trying to make informed decisions about where our food comes from,” said Tom Godfrey, CHOICE spokesperson.
“One of the products in the latest recall, Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries, is listed on the Coles website as being ‘Packed in Australia using imported fruit’,” Mr Godfrey said. “This claim is totally meaningless when it comes to the country of origin of the fruit inside the pack,” he said.
Incident raises ‘serious concerns’, AusVeg
Meanwhile, Australian horticultural growers’ representative body AusVeg has said it is “deeply concerned” by the the reported outbreak of Hepatitis A in imported berry products.
“The incident has raised serious concerns about the level of testing and scrutiny applied to the imports of not just frozen berry products, but all fresh and frozen commodities being brought into Australia, including vegetables,” said Andrew White, AusVeg Deputy CEO. “Given that Australian producers are required to comply with some of the world’s strictest quality assurance standards before their products are made available for public consumption, it is high time the same level of scrutiny is applied to imported produce to ensure public safety,” he said.
Mr White said given the “superior production standards” employed by Australian growers, “consumers would always be better off opting for local produce”.
However, Mr White added despite Australians’ widely acknowledged preference for buying local produce, ongoing confusion surrounding Country-of-Origin-Labelling laws meant it was still often difficult for consumers to determine precisely where the products they were purchasing came from.
“In this latest incident, we are seeing berries sourced from Chile and China, being processed in China then shipped here, and seemingly posing a health risk to Australian consumers,” Mr White said.
Severe Hepatitis A outbreaks of other companies
The problem of Hepatitis A from food has been in the headlines in the US in recent years.
In 2013, hundreds of staff and diners who had worked at or attended a high-end New York restaurant were vaccinated against the disease after it was revealed that a part-time pastry maker in the restaurant was infected with the virus. The scare initiated a class-action lawsuit against the restaurant.
In 2011, some 1,500 people in North Carolina were vaccinated against the virus when a restaurant staffer tested positive for Hepatitis A.
In 2009, more than 10,000 McDonald’s patrons were urged to get Hepatitis A vaccinations after two employees at a McDonald’s restaurant in northwestern Illinois were found to be infected with the virus.