Patties reports negative Hepatitis A test results on its berries

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 15th April 2015
Patties reports negative Hepatitis A test results on its berries
Patties reports negative Hepatitis A test results on its berries

Australian food manufacturer Patties Foods has reported that microbiological and viral tests run on its frozen berries products, which had been linked to the recent Hepatitis A Virus (HAV) outbreak, have shown negative for the virus.

Patties Foods recalled several of its frozen berries products after its Nanna’s Mixed Berries 1kg product was linked to the HAV outbreak. It also extended the recall to other frozen berries under the Nanna’s brand, and frozen berries under the Creative Gourmet brand.

The Company said results of tests on samples of recalled and non-recalled Nanna’s Mixed Berries 1kg had shown negative for HAV and E.coli. No detection of HAV or E.coli was found in any sample, according to the Company.

To date, the Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) has advised that 31 HAV cases have been linked epidemiologically.

Patties Foods and DHHS, DHHS advised that as a result of the number of new cases reducing and the completion of the 50 day HAV incubation period, the risk of further cases is low.

Patties Foods MD and CEO, Steven Chaur, said the Company was working closely with the Department of Agriculture, Farming & Food (DAFF), DHHS and its suppliers globally on now concluding the investigation.

Patties berries back on the shelves

The Company has recently recommenced supply of all its non-recalled Nanna’s and Creative Gourmet berries varieties, other than Mixed Berries, back onto the Australian supermarket shelves under a ‘positive release’ regime for every batch, only after local external laboratory tests for both E.coli and HAV confirm the product is negative to these markers.

“Extensive microbiological and viral testing conducted by Patties Foods shows no evidence of systemic failure of Patties Foods’ quality assurance programs,” Mr Chaur said.

“Our microbiological and viral testing does not confirm any link between Nanna’s Mixed Berries and HAV,” Mr Chaur said. “However, we are guided by the epidemiology provided by the DHHS and accordingly have taken proactive and collaborative measures to ensure public safety,” he said.

“If our Nanna’s product was the source, the lack of laboratory findings from the testing conducted by Patties Foods for the presence of E.coli, Coliforms or HAV indicates there has been no systemic failure,” Mr Chaur said. “Regardless, Patties Foods has significantly increased protection measures to ensure that any risk is further minimised in future,” he said.

Increased testing on berries from all locations

Since the potential link between its products and HAV was first notified, Mr Chaur said Patties Foods had recalled all potential source product, ceased importing from possible sources of the potential contamination, and increased its testing regime to 100 per cent of all containers of our imported frozen berries from all countries, not just China.

“As well, we have introduced tighter sensitivity tests of E.coli from <3cfu/g to now a maximum limit of 1cfu/g on ALL fruit batches,” Mr Chaur said. “This level of E.coli testing is the most sensitive possible. No detection of E.coli has been found in any sample. E.coli is a marker for poor hygiene, faecal matter and potentially HAV, and is readily identifiable in laboratory testing,” he said.

“Nanna’s and Creative Gourmet brand berries are amongst the most rigorously microbiologically tested berries now sold in the market,” Mr Chaur said.

All berries in warehouses tested

Patties Foods said it had also re-tested as a precautionary measure all batches of frozen berries not subject to the recall in our Australian warehouses. This includes berries and fruits from Chile, Vietnam and Peru. The Company said no evidence of HAV or E.coli had been detected in any batch.

“Patties Foods has now adopted a ‘positive release’ protocol on all its frozen berry products, which means every batch will be tested in Australia for HAV and E.coli, and are only released to market when negative test results are provided,” Mr Chaur said. “All Nanna’s and Creative Gourmet berries now being released to supermarkets have passed this test with nil detection,” he said.

Evaluating “new sources of global supply”

Patties Foods said it had since the recall ceased all supply of its Nanna’s and Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries to the Australian market, taking into account DHHS’s epidemiological results until further notice, while it evaluated new sources of global supply.

“The health and safety of consumers is our primary concern and we want to give consumers full confidence that when they buy a packet of our product, they can enjoy a quality product, produced to Australian Food Safety Standards,” Mr Chaur said. “Consumers have told us they want the Nanna’s range back on shelves, and we will keep working hard to ensure consumers can enjoy and trust our products,” he said.

Testing process

Patties Foods said sent approximately 360 packs of frozen berries for HAV testing at laboratories in Europe, North America and Australia.

The Company said this testing took longer than initially anticipated because of the “significant logistics program” required to maintain the integrity of a large number of frozen product samples in transport to the leading accredited laboratories around the world. No HAV or E.coli was detected in any of the packets of various batch codes.

DHHS tested 2 opened sample packs recovered from consumers who had contracted HAV:

  • For 1 of these samples, HAV was not detected.
  • 1 sample from the opened pack tested positive for HAV, however DHHS noted that as this sample was from an opened packet it may have been open to contamination.

DHHS also tested 8 random sample packs purchased from supermarkets including in Victoria:

  • For 7 of these samples, HAV was not detected
  • 1 sample detected a trace amount of HAV:
    • SARDI reported that a trace amount of HAV was detected in one of the duplicate neat sample RNA’s. It added however that quantification at such low levels was not precise.
    • Microbiological testing of this sample returned negative results for Coliform and E.coli.
    • DHHS noted that the detection of HAV, under the testing protocol, only demonstrated the virus was or is present. It did not allow for a determination of whether the virus is viable (i.e. whether the virus is alive and will cause infection).

Frozen berries popular in Australia

Mr Chaur said frozen berries were “a very popular product in Australia”, with over 24 million packs sold in supermarkets each year. He said consumer demand for frozen berries had grown at over 40 per cent a year over recent years.

“The overwhelming majority of frozen berries consumed in Australia are imported, and Patties Foods is one of about 30 companies which import frozen berries,” Mr Chaur said.

Patties Foods “keen to engage with local berry growers”

Mr Chaur said Patties Foods was “the only frozen berry importer which has achieved a Food Import Certification Agreement (FICA) compliance from the DAFF for frozen berry and fruit imports”. He said this compliance operated to “much higher standards than regular importers”, and it documented and regularly audited Patties Foods for Australian food safety compliance.

“Patties Foods is keen to engage with local berry growers in Australia on the development of a locally sourced berry range,” Mr Chaur said.

“This will require investment in specialised freezing technology and development of commercial crop volumes required to meet consumer frozen berry demand. It could take some time to develop the infrastructure and crops, given long seasonal lead times,” Mr Chaur said. “In the meantime, the company will continue to source berries from China, Chile and other global regions where producers specialise in frozen berry production,” he said.

Mr Chaur said the frozen berries category was one of the fastest growing in supermarkets at around +40 per cent per annum due to the popularity of smoothies.

“Frozen berries have grown so strongly because of convenience, year round availability and price,” Mr Chaur said. “Frozen berries sell for about $10 per kilo versus $35-45 per kilo for fresh, so fresh berries are still a very expensive proposition short term for consumers,” he said.

“Until local producers can meet volume, technology and cost requirements, consumer demand in supermarkets is likely to continue to be met through global sourcing, with rigorous safety testing standards and consistent labelling requirements,” Mr Chaur said. “Patties Foods wants to be an active participant in further developing the local industry,” he said.

“Now the testing has been completed with no systemic quality failure, the company is working with its major supermarket partners to actively re-engage consumer confidence in the frozen berry category,” Mr Chaur said.

The Federal Health Department stated on 25 March 2015: “The risk of contracting hepatitis A from eating frozen berries is estimated to be very low noting there have been only 28ii cases to date despite berries being a commonly consumed food”.

The Federal Health Department advised on 10 April that there were a total of 79 cases of Hepatitis A in Australia this year, 14 fewer than at the same time last year.