In the wake of the recent hepatitis A/frozen berry health scare, calls are growing for stricter controls on foreign food imports and more support for the local berry industry. By CHRISTINE BROWN-PAUL

According to NSW Department of Primary Industries, Australian raspberry and blackberry production was 1057 tonnes for the year ending 2011. In 2014, it was over 3000 tonnes, according to Raspberries & Blackberries Australia. This was supplemented with a further 5138 tonnes of imported product. All imported raspberries into Australia are in a frozen or pulped form. Additionally, raspberries are also imported in a mixed berry form where they are combined with other berries, for example, blackberries, mulberries, loganberries, currants and gooseberries.

Chile is currently the primary source of raspberry imports into Australia, accounting for 64% of the total processed imports (see ‘Hydroponic Growing in Chile’—PH&G April 2014 / Issue 142).

Although a popular food with Australians, frozen berries have recently acquired a tarnished reputation in the wake of the recent hepatitis A scare. At time of writing, the Australian Department of Health is coordinating a national health response to the current cases of locally acquired hepatitis A virus infection reported in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and WA. So far, there have been 18 cases reported nationally.

Consumption of Nanna’s brand frozen mixed berries has been linked to the cases of hepatitis A in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and WA with the parent company, Patties, issuing a nationwide voluntary recall on Friday 13 February and a subsequent precautionary recall of its Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries 300g and 500g packs, followed by its Nanna’s brand frozen raspberries 1kg (which are not associated with illness but are packed in the same factory).The product is packed in China, containing raspberries, strawberries and blackberries grown there, and blueberries from Chile.

The source of the hepatitis A virus is still unconfirmed, however, the berries are the only common exposure for all cases. The Australian Department of Agriculture is engaging Chinese government authorities through the Australian embassy staff in Beijing, seeking assurances about the safety of further shipments of frozen berries exported from China.

The Department of Agriculture has confirmed that 100% of Patties berries from the processing facility associated with the recent hepatitis A outbreak are being held (on a voluntary basis) pending testing.

Currently, the Department of Agriculture is contacting companies that have imported Chinese berries to obtain further information around their source of the berries and supply chain food safety management systems. The Department of Agriculture has formally requested a review of the risk status of frozen berries from FSANZ.

Action has been taken quickly by regulators and industry to withdraw any potentially affected product from retail. The Commonwealth Department of Health has issued information on its website for GPs, patients and consumers. The Department of Health, the Department of Agriculture and Food Standards Australia and New Zealand are working with State and Territory health authorities and the food industry to resolve this public health issue.

The OzFoodNet, the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia, the National Food Safety Network the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, the National Blood Authority and the Australian Red Cross Blood Service (ARCBS) continue to meet and investigate.

Screening of frozen berries announced

Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, and Assistant Minister for Health, Fiona Nash, have moved to update Australians on the situation involving imported frozen berries and hepatitis A.

In the Ministers’ latest joint announcement (dated 24 February 2015), it was indicated that 100% screening would apply to frozen berries from factories in China linked to the Australian hepatitis A incident, which have been held pending further testing. This 100% testing will include testing for hepatitis A indicators.

According to the Ministers’ departments, all frozen berries from the facilities in question were immediately held as soon as the hepatitis A issue came to light. In addition, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has provided interim advice upgrading the suspect frozen berries to “medium risk” following a request by the Department of Agriculture to review the risk status. Berries from these facilities are subject to 100% testing at the border.

A recall to pull the stock off the shelves was also issued immediately upon news of the hepatitis A issue, and the Department of Health’s National Incident Room was also activated in Canberra to manage the matter. Comprehensive testing of the berry product is being carried out with early results due to be released at time of writing.

“Australian officials from our Department of Agriculture are on the ground working with the Chinese authorities on this matter. The Department of Agriculture has also sought information on supply chains from all importers of frozen berries from China,” said a Department of Agriculture spokesperson.

“The Chinese Government has carried out initial inspections of the packing facility implicated in the outbreak and has taken swabs for microbiological testing. Additionally, and as part of the Department of Agriculture’s request, FSANZ will continue its broader and rigorous scientific assessment of the risk status of frozen berries from around the globe. The assessment is expected to take some weeks.”

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer has advised that an estimated one per cent infection rate for people eating these berries is a very conservative upper limit, which could be revised downwards as experts continue to examine all the data.

In addition, previous outbreaks of hepatitis A have shown that around 30% of adults infected may not show symptoms at all and this is higher in children.

Meanwhile, the Australian Red Cross Blood Service says people who ate the berries can now give blood.

“After careful assessment, the Australian Red Cross Blood Service has now advised that people who have eaten the berries can continue to give blood so long as they are not sick,” said a Red Cross spokesperson.

“No person has ever contracted hepatitis A from a blood transfusion in Australia.”

Chile denies blame

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the hepatitis A scare, the Chilean Association of Fruit Exporters (ASOEX) has refuted claims that Chilean berries were to blame for the recall of frozen berry products in Australia, saying instead that the berries would have most likely been re-packed by Chinese shippers.

“Exports of fresh Chilean blueberries, as well as other berries, are not authorised to enter the Australian market. Therefore, it is impossible that this involves a product sent directly from our country to that market,” the group said.

ASOEX said that the berries would have been handled in China and mixed with other berries.

“A group of Chilean blueberries would have been mixed with strawberries, blackberries and raspberries that were grown, it seems, in the Chinese market—a situation that could have come from a contamination”.

According to ASOEX, Chilean blueberries have never caused any previous health problems in export markets.

Australian consumers and growers demand answers

Australia has a well-deserved reputation for a safe and clean food supply. So why are berries from one of China’s most polluted provinces able to be sold in Australian shops? That’s one of the many questions many Australians are asking. They also want to know why they have no idea about where our food is coming from, where it is being processed and how long it has been in storage.

There is also concern for many, that although they want to support Australian farmers, not everyone can afford to buy the local product.

AUSVEG—the peak body representing vegetable and potato growers—says that it is “deeply concerned” by the news that some of these imported frozen berry products could have been contaminated with hepatitis A, and is eager to see measures put in place to ensure such public health scares do not occur in the future.

“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 AUSVEG Deputy CEO, Andrew White.

“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.”

Mr White said given the superior production standards employed by Australian growers, consumers would always be better off opting for local produce.

However, he 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,” he said.

“AUSVEG has long called for clearer Country-of-Origin Laws which provide consumers with the clarity they need to exercise their preference to purchase Australian produce, wherever possible.”

In a move welcomed by AUSVEG, the Australian Greens have reintroduced legislation for mandatory Country-of-Origin Labelling.

“By prohibiting confusing terms such as ‘made from local and imported ingredients’, this legislation will help to give Australian consumers the information they need to act on their proven preference to buy Australian,” said Mr White.

“By providing clarity around Country of Origin, we are not only giving consumers a choice, but also giving local growers a platform to compete against manipulatively-labelled, cheaper and inferior foreign product.”

“What this latest incident also clearly demonstrates is that it is in the public interest to provide consumers with clarity about where the produce they are buying comes from, so they can avoid products of dubious origins.”

AUSVEG and CHOICE back Country-of-Origin labelling

AUSVEG is backing Australian consumer advocacy group, CHOICE, which has launched an online petition calling on the Federal Government to reform Country-of-Origin Labelling (CoOL) laws to enable consumers to make informed decisions about the food they buy.

After welcoming Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s acknowledgment of the importance of Country-of-Origin Labelling following the hepatitis health scare linked to imported frozen berries, AUSVEG is now supporting CHOICE’s strengthened calls for stronger labelling laws.

AUSVEG CEO, Richard Mulcahy.

“AUSVEG was pleased to hear the Minister emphasise the importance of a strong Country-of-Origin Labelling system and now it is good to see groups like CHOICE calling for further action via their online petition,” said AUSVEG CEO Richard Mulcahy.

“Clearer Country-of-Origin Labelling laws will mean a fairer system for Australian shoppers, where they know where the food that they are buying and eating has come from.”

“If they hold particular concerns surrounding the origins of imported foods, they must be given the chance to shop around for alternatives.”

CHOICE has noted on its website that a consumer survey conducted in 2014 surrounding Country-of-Origin showed that a staggering 85% of respondents said it was crucial or very important for them to be able to identify if the food they buy has been grown in Australia.

“The massive ambiguity that exists with current labelling must be put to an end to give consumers a proper choice when it comes to purchasing food items,” said Mr Mulcahy.

“A plethora of consumer studies have shown that Australians want to buy Australian made, and we are calling for government and businesses to give them this opportunity.”

AUSVEG is encouraging consumers to visit the CHOICE petition link (http://choice.good.do/CoOL/write-to-barnaby-joyce/) and let the Australian government know how important Country-of-Origin Labelling is to them.

Australian Made Campaign

The Australian Made Campaign has welcomed the renewed focus on Country-of-Origin labelling in Parliament, brought about by the reintroduction of a food labelling Bill by the Greens party and independent Senator Nick Xenophon.

Australian Made Campaign Chief Executive Ian Harrison

“While we welcome the reintroduction of this Bill, the Government is yet to announce its decisions on the food labelling enquiry undertaken last year by the House of Representatives Senate Committee on Agriculture and Industry. It would make sense to complete that review before commencing yet another one,” Australian Made Campaign Chief Executive, Ian Harrison, said.

“The current issue with imported frozen berries highlights the need for clearer Country-of-Origin labelling, as it appears consumers may have been confused about where they came from.”

The Australian Made Campaign is the not-for-profit organisation that administers and promotes Australia’s registered Country-of-Origin certification trade mark, which authenticates whether a product has genuinely been made or grown in Australia.

For a number of years the Australian Made Campaign has been calling for the regulations under Australian Consumer Law to fall into line with the more stringent rules for using the Australian Made, Australian Grown logo, thereby eradicating critical loopholes that currently exist.

“The Australian Made Campaign supports—and in fact originated—the proposal to draw up regulations to clarify the concept of ‘substantial transformation’ and to specify processes which, by themselves, do not satisfy this test,” Mr Harrison said.

“The proposal to label food in such a way that highlights significant ingredients—‘Made in Australia from Australian milk’ for chocolate, for example—as long as all requirements for a ‘Made in Australia’ claim are met, makes good sense as well.

“We still cannot, however, support the Bill in its current form. We do not see the value in banning the claims ‘Australian Made’ or ‘Made in Australia’ for food products in favour of the equivalent terms ‘Australian Manufactured’ or ‘Manufactured in Australia’.”

Mr Harrison said that a continual point of confusion for consumers was the use of qualified claims such as ‘Made in Australia from imported and local ingredients’. The Australian Made Campaign opposes the use of qualified claims unless the product satisfies the full ‘Made in’ test.

“Australian consumers have the right to know where their food has been made and grown, and it is important that we strengthen Country-of-Origin labelling for the benefit of Australia’s farmers and manufacturers as well—it is a vital asset in these trade-exposed sectors.”

Implications for fresh produce supply chain

Food safety expert, Richard Bennett, Technology Manager at the Fresh Produce Safety Centre Australia–New Zealand (FPSC), has authored a fact sheet to help both industry and consumers to understand the food safety issues and address some of the misconceptions associated with the current frozen berries hepatitis crisis.

The FPSC is an industry-led, not-for-profit company established to enhance fresh produce food safety across Australia and New Zealand through research, outreach and education.

“Australia’s food safety and quality assurance standards are widely recognised as being world-leading” Richard said.

“Food safety in Australia comes under the regulatory authority of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and the Australian Food Standards Code. The Code applies equally to domestic production and imported food such as fresh and processed produce, and food safety certification is commercially mandatory to supply any of Australia’s major retailers.”

”But regulation can only do so much,” he added.

“We are fortunate that not many serious outbreaks have occurred in Australia. Outbreaks of this nature are rare but they do occur and the industry must be constantly vigilant and have crisis plans in place to respond when—not if—they happen.”

Richard Bennett says that both the FPSC and centre co-founder, the Produce Marketing Association Australia–-New Zealand (PMA A-NZ), support a review of this case of food-borne illness, as they would any similar case, if they believe that such a review may lead to improved food safety outcomes for Australian consumers.

“It certainly is a call to action across the entire horticultural sector, and businesses who are not engaged in that process of food safety compliance now, should take a good hard look at themselves and ask ‘why not’?“

“In particular, such a review should objectively test the capability of the food safety preventive controls in place, seek gaps in the efficacy of the commercial and regulatory standards in place and clarify industry concerns relating to matters of fairness and equivalence” he said.

Established in 2014, the FPSC is currently contracting two pieces of research and development, which were identified as priorities by industry over the last 18 months.

“We are in the process right now of commissioning and commencing two vital research projects. One is to update our on-farm food safety guidelines, and in fact, extend the scope of those guidelines to include further along the supply chain than just ‘on-farm’,” he said.

“The second one is that we’re commissioning a literature review of microbial contamination associated with water use pre-harvest and post-harvest, and attributed to other sources of microbial contamination. It will look at the international literature and convey the best practice that comes out of the research that’s already been conducted, and identify any gaps where research has not been conducted to address crucial microbial contamination issues such as the ones we’re talking about now.”

Jonathan Eccles, Executive Officer of Raspberries and Blackberries Australia.

Elsewhere, Executive Officer of Raspberries and Blackberries Australia (RABA, a national organisation), Jonathan Eccles, points out that the berry/hepatitis A issue on imported frozen berries is not so much a labelling issue, but rather is a food safety issue.

“Of course, improved labelling on imported produce is important but ultimately, this issue is about food safety. Berry growers in Australia are required to have appropriate on-farm food safety programs in place as part of their everyday business practice,” he said.

“I can’t speak for what goes on overseas, but I certainly would hope that farms overseas supplying Australian markets are meeting the same standards that we have in place.

“Australian growers pay a lot of money for food safety certification in order to meet the standards required,” Mr Eccles said.

“We expect other suppliers to have the same requirements,” said

Mr Eccles who added that while most of Australia’s berry farms are located in Tasmania and Southern Victoria, increasing production is now occurring in Northern NSW and South East Queensland.

“This issue is confined to imported frozen berries. Australian consumers should be confident in choosing Australian-grown berries,” Mr Eccles said.

“The production of raspberries and blackberries has doubled in the last three years,” he said.

“That’s been a response to not only increasing consumer demand for fresh berries, but also because the industry has been expanding into these new, non-traditional growing areas. We are now able to supply raspberries all-year-round and blackberries for over half the year.”

“We are seeing wide-scale adoption of hydroponic production based mainly on coco peat substrate and use of protected cropping. This helps to produce better quality fruit and increased productivity. Growing berries hydroponically can extend the picking season by bringing on early harvest and prolonging the later harvests.”

For more information on the facts behind the hepatitis A virus outbreak, see Fresh Produce Safety Centre’s fact sheet at: https://producesafetycentreanz.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/20150219-frozen-berries-hep-a-fact-sheet1.pdf    Ω

PH&G March 2015 / Issue 153

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