Hepatitis Cases Shake Australian Food Safety Confidence

The outbreak of Hepatitis A viral infections in Australia, believed to be connected to consumption of frozen berries sourced from China, has led to a call for review of the nation’s system for inspecting imported food products. As many as 14 cases of the illness have been reported thus far in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales among victims whose common denominator appears to be the consumption of Nanna’s brand frozen mixed berries distributed by Bairnsdale-based Patties Foods.

Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries 500gS102557-3D"Investigations through our supply chain have identified a specific source of raspberries as a potential common link to the possible safety issues raised by health authorities," said Steven Chaur, the company’s managing director and chief executive officer. "The specific source supplied raspberries which were packed in Nanna's and Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries, that were the subject of the consumer recall announced last weekend."

Patties has now recalled the following four frozen berry products:

  • 1-kilogram packs of Nanna's Mixed Berries carrying a Best Before date of November 22, 2016.
  • 1-Kilogram Nanna's Raspberries with a Best Before date of September 15, 2016.
  • 300-gram Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries, with a Best Before date of December 10, 2017.
  • 500-gram Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries, with a Best Before date of October 7, 2017.

Creative Gourmet is the nation’s top-selling brand of frozen berries, as well as other frozen fruits and desserts.

Australia flag-2As the recalls have shaken Australian consumer confidence in the safety of imported foods, the matter has become a major political issue. Senator Nick Xenophon, an independent, is demanding two separate inquiries into the matter.

"This is a serious and widening outbreak of illness apparently caused by basic hygiene failures in China," he said. "These berries were considered 'low risk,' but failed the most basic of health checks – carrying a bacteria common in fecal matter. This shows systemic failures in the way that imported foods are screened in this country."

He continued: "The government does not test for bacterial infections of foods as part of its spot-checks of 5% of low risk food imports. We should be looking at issuing permits to export to Australia, so that adequate sanitation and health checks can be carried out in advance."

Xenophon believes that nothing short of a thorough review and systematic overhaul of the nation's food labeling laws is required.

"Currently you can call something 'made in Australia' so long as 51% by value (including processing) was done in Australia," he commented. "That's nowhere near good enough for consumers to make an informed choice."

Alan Kirkland, chief executive officer of the consumer group Choice, is in full agreement. Speaking with reporter Sabra Lane of Australian Broadcasting Corporation on February 19, he commented:

“The system of country of origin labeling, which is a mandatory system, is broken. Our research shows that, but you don't need to do surveys to show that. Any consumer you speak to will say, ‘I don't understand what the labels on their food mean,’ and I think now we're going to need to see action on that. It's been put in the political too-hard basket for way too long, but I don't think the government's going to be able to resist the community pressure for change now.”

Testing in Progress
Meanwhile, in response to ongoing consumer and media enquiries regarding safety testing on its fruit and berry products imported from China, Patties Foods CEO Chaur on February 20 issued a detail statement, much of which is published below:

"The consumer recall initiated this week based on epidemiological advice from the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is a precautionary measure. There is still no detailed viral analysis from accredited laboratories that proves any firm association of Hepatitis A Virus (HAV) with our recalled products.

"Our focus is on the health and well being of our consumers, and we are continuing to work closely with health authorities in the interests of public safety.

"Patties Foods does have in place a rigorous microbiological testing program for all its overseas sourced frozen fruit and berry products, as well as with our products proudly produced here in Australia. All our products are continually tested and pass, in line with the required Australian Food Standards.

"Samples of all imported berry products are tested up to four 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.

"Patties Foods physically inspects all its supplier farms and contracted fruit packing facilities, including those in China. All our packing facilities are accredited to one of the GFSI (Global Food Standards Initiative) Quality Standards, which includes BRC (British Retail Consortium) certification for the facilities under investigation. Our Chinese contracted facilities are selected based on meeting strict food safety and food certification criteria, then are physically audited each year by Patties Foods technical representatives, as well as CIQ (China Inspection and Quarantine Services), which is the Chinese regulator and the equivalent of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS).

"We test raw material from the farms seasonally for items such as Hepatitis A and novovirus, and we test individual batches for microbiological compliance before the fruit is allowed to enter the packing facility. We then test the fruit again at the production facility for coliforms, listeria, staphylococcus and E.coli, before and after packing into bags. E.coli testing is a critical biological marker used to identify any potential association with organic materials, such as manure or poor hygiene, and our test results consistently pass all Australian Standards.

"The CIQ tests every container before it leaves the country for microbiological compliance, as a last line of microbiological defense for Patties Foods before the product leaves China. No container leaves China unless it has full microbiological compliance to FSANZ Standards, and we receive these test results to confirm this before shipment.

"Finally, we then sample test the same product arriving in shipping containers in accordance with the Food Import Compliance Agreement (FICA) requirements of the Australian Department of Agriculture, which requires that 5% of product is tested. Patties Foods' documented test regime is amongst the highest, testing 20% of all the containers when they arrive in Australia, which is well above the requirements.

"Many Chinese food production facilities also supply European and Japanese food markets, and they also have extremely strict hygiene and quality standards. Despite public misconceptions, many Chinese food production facilities are at least as hygienic as those in Australia, and operate to similar regulatory compliance regimes.

"Having checked through all our quality control testing documentation back to June 2014, we are satisfied that this testing program through the global supply chain has 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.

"We have initiated further testing of the recalled product from world leading accredited viral laboratories in Europe, North America and here in Australia, and we expect results for HAV 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.

nannas-1"Until the HAV results are formally known, we have stopped all further supply and production of 1kg Nanna's Mixed Berries; Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries 300g/500g packs; and Nanna's Raspberries 1kg from the suspected facilities in China. We have also engaged a certified global food safety auditor to visit the Mixed Berry packing facilities to conduct a full food safety assessment before any further packing is undertaken.

"I would like to reassure our consumers that the other Nanna's and Creative Gourmet branded berries from our other sources in China, Chile and Europe, including raspberries (Creative Gourmet), strawberries, mangoes, avocado, blueberries, blackberries and cherries are not affected by this precautionary recall. There have been no concerns raised with any HAV association with these products and they are packed in other regions, facilities and global locations.

"We have also taken the immediate step to now increase our sample testing to 100% of all batches of our imported frozen berries from all countries, not just China, for any microbial and viral markers such as HAV.”