Government berry havoc as Barnaby’s Agriculture department responsible for testing inadequacies

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 23rd February 2015
Government berry havoc as Barnaby’s Agriculture department responsible for testing inadequacies
Government berry havoc as Barnaby’s Agriculture department responsible for testing inadequacies

The Australian Department of Agriculture has attempted to shift its responsibilities concerning the health risks of imported frozen berries onto Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), by formally requesting FSANZ conduct a review of the risk status of frozen berries.

Federal Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce, whose departmental officers are responsible for all testing of food imports has also been leading the calls for a further review of Australia’s country of origin labelling. This is despite the fact that there have already been several public inquiries and long consultative processes over the past five years on the country of origin regulations for imported foods. The government responses to recommendations by the 2011 Blewett food labelling report and subsequent Parliamentary Committee reports have not resulted in any real legislative changes to alter the regulatory regime that has operated for country of origin requirements since 2005. The whole area of country of origin labelling appears to have become a red herring given that country of origin regulation does not fall within the ambit of Agriculture Minister Joyce’s portfolio.

Causal doubts on berry connection

Meanwhile, food manufacturer Patties Foods has raised a serious question mark over the lack of scientific evidence or any testing that shows a direct connection between consumption of any of its products and the 13 reported cases thus far of Hepatitis A, which the Victorian government Department of Health and Services first linked with Patties Nanna’s Frozen Mixed Berry 1kg product.

Patties had also voluntarily recalled its Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries products and 1kg Nanna’s Rapsberries product. Consumers have been warned by governments around Australia to avoid eating these recalled berry products as they may be contaminated with hepatitis A virus. The Nanna’s Frozen Mixed Berry product is packed in China and distributed in Australia by Patties, based in Bairnsdale. It is distributed mainly to Woolworths, Coles and IGA supermarkets.

Patties increases imported product sample testing to 100 per cent

Patties Managing Director and CEO Steven Chaur said although there was still “no detailed viral analysis from accredited laboratories that proves any firm association of Hepatitis A virus with our recalled products”, the Company had taken the immediate step to increase its sample testing to 100 per cent of all batches of its frozen berries from all countries, not just China, for any microbial and viral markers, such as Hepatitis A.

Mr Chaur said Patties already tested 20 per cent of its imported food product as it arrived in Australia, well above the 5 per cent required by the Food Import Compliance Agreement (FICA) requirements of the Australian Department of Agriculture.

Patties details its testing processes

Mr Chaur said Patties had in place a “rigorous microbiological testing program” for all its overseas sourced frozen fruit and berry products, as well as with its products produced in Australia.

“All our products are continually tested and pass, in line with the required Australian Food Standards,” Mr Chaur said.

“Samples of all imported berry products are tested up to 4 times, again based on Australian Food Standards, before we’re satisfied the products are safe to be released to our consumers and retail customers in the Australian market,” Mr Chaur said.

Mr Chaur said Patties inspected all its supplier farms and contracted fruit packing facilities, including those in China. He said raw material from the farms was tested seasonally for items such as Hepatitis A and norovirus, and individual batches were tested for microbiological compliance before the fruit was allowed to enter the packing facility.

He said containers of its products were then tested for microbiological compliance by the China Inspection and Quarantine Servies (CIQ), which is the Chinese regulator and the equivalent of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, before they left China.

Further testing of berries

Mr Chaur said that having checked through all its quality control testing documentation to June 2014, the Company was “satisfied that this testing program through the global supply chain has not not detected any biological indicators with any of our frozen berry products from China or other global sources that is not in line with Australian guidelines”.

Meanwhile, Victorian Department of Health and Human Services is sending the berries to testing labs overseas.

“Testing of berries will be undertaken in laboratories in both Australia and also in Europe and the US,” Bram Alexander, spokesperson for the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services told Australian Food News today. “Not all public health laboratories are able to test for Hepatitis A virus in food, so some of the samples need to be tested in suitable labs, both in Australia and overseas,” he said.

‘Several weeks for any results to be available’, says government official

Victorian health department spokesperson Mr Alexander said it may take several weeks for any results to be available to the Victorian government, and did not name any specific Australian laboratories it was using.

Patties said it expected its own results from testing for the Hepatitis A virus within a fortnight.

“At this point, we have not been provided any remaining consumer product to test from the 13 confirmed HAV cases to clinically verify if there is indeed a direct link with the Nanna’s Mixed Berries as has been drawn,” Patties’ Mr Chaur said.

This is not the first time in recent years that a Hepatitis A outbreak has required testing go offshore. In January 2010, Australian Food News reported that the Victorian Department of Health faced difficulties and delays in testing for Hepatitis A that was being done offshore, when it was linked to semi-dried tomatoes. Subsequently, the CSIRO made a report that recommended testing be improved for the detection of viruses in foods.

It now appears that the Victorian and Federal governments did not act on the CSIRO’s earlier recommendations.

Australian Government says it is working with China on berries issue

The Australian Department of Agriculture has said it was maintaining close engagement with the Department of Health, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), the peak industry body, state food authorities and importers as part of a national response to recent concerns about the safety of imported food.

As well as requesting a review of the risk status of frozen berries, the Department has said it will also consider the outcomes of incident investigations conducted by the State and Territory food authorities.