Hepatitis A frozen berries—in the race to the bottom, everyone loses

hep a frozen berries
It’s cruel irony that Australians striving for optimum health purchased frozen berries, and now risk being infected by hepatitis A.

Hepatitis A found in imported frozen berries
26 people have been diagnosed with hepatitis A, linked with eating the Nanna’s brand of imported frozen berries.

Symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, fever, diarrhoea, dark urine and jaundice (yellow skin and eyes). Infection occurs when the virus is taken in by mouth, often spread when traces of faecal matter containing the virus come in contact with hands, water or food. Symptoms appear between 15 and 50 days after exposure.

Hepatitis A in frozen berries is not uncommon with global food chains; there have been multiple outbreaks recently in Europe and America. In this case the berries, grown in Chile and China, were distributed by Pattie Foods, a company based at Bairnsdale, in eastern Victoria.

Dr Finn Romanes from Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services confirmed the contamination had been traced back to China.

Where does food comes from? How was it produced?
Whilst many find the use of ‘night soil’ in Chinese farming unpalatable, there is no evidence that this fertilisation method was used. It is believed that contamination occurred at the Chinese supplier’s factory where the berries were washed and packaged.

“The water systems in China and much of Asia are thoroughly polluted,” says science communicator Julian Cribb. “Their industrial waste, heavy metals, chemicals, sewage and pig manure goes into the river systems, and this is used to wash fruit.”

China has endured many food scandals, with milk adulterated with melamine; rat, fox and mink flesh sold as mutton; 12 million tonnes of rice tainted with cadmium, a heavy metal known to cause cancer; and exploding watermelons. The government is clamping down, nevertheless breaches still occur.

Farm workers in Chile, who are mostly women, have precarious working conditions characterised by low wages, low job stability and a lack of legal protections. They can work up to 16 hours a day. In a competitive rush to export, many suffer from the ill effects of pesticide use.

Or someone pays the price.

How did imported frozen berries even become a thing?
Australia recently became a net importer of processed food, most pronounced in the fruit and vegetable category. According to IBISWorld, this was aided by the high Australian dollar, high domestic overheads and wage costs. Adverse weather conditions restricted the availability of domestic fruit and vegetables.

Like many food companies, Patties Food faced intense competition in the grocery sector due to private label competitors and a price war among branded food makers. Supermarket “complex demands” added to production and packaging costs. Only last year the company shifted the packaging of its frozen fruits brands to China.

Blueberries were touted as a super food in popular media, despite there being no silver bullet to cancer prevention. Frozen fruit marketers developed another ‘occasion’ for consumption and improved the packaging.

Hello, smoothies!

Busy people—driven by convenience, health and low cost—embraced the idea. Previously high consumption would have occurred during the domestic peak season, yet with the imported product available in season-free supermarkets, berries could be consumed every day of the year.

Pattie’s Food managing director and chief executive officer Steven Chaur said Australian supplies were too small to meet demand for berries, with no domestic facilities to quick freeze them.

Who needs to change behaviour?
“Unfortunately Australians have been taught by the supermarket duopoly to seek cheap food,” says Cribb.

Yet if shoppers understood the conditions that their imported food was produced and processed—and the risks attached—will it change their buying behaviour? They would need to be supported by clear country of origin labeling because “Made in Australia using local and imported ingredients” says zero.

Will it change business practices? Many on Facebook listed supermarket homebrands with imports from these locations. What about the critical controls to ensure food safety?

Will it change the messaging of health professionals to include “buy local and seasonal?” The healthiness of food depends on the integrity of supply.

The federal Department of Agriculture do not regard frozen berry imports as high-risk, but instead “surveillance foods”. They test at a rate of 5 per cent of all consignments for 49 agricultural chemical residues, as well as packaging and labelling requirement.

Australia does not routinely test for hepatitis A, or any other virus. They are difficult to test and aren’t easily detectable with current methods of analysis.

“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,” says Andrew White, Deputy CEO of horticultural body AUSVEG, “it is high time the same level of scrutiny is applied to imported produce to ensure public safety.”

Meanwhile, growing close to you
Australian berries are still in season.

As best you can, eat local and seasonal.

Our food future
The Australian government is signing an increasing number of free trade agreements so the potential for more food contamination outbreaks will grow. Besides disease, there is chemical contamination, antibiotics, antimicrobial treatments of fish and other foods to consider.

The details of trade deals are confidential until they’re final, so the public has no ability to comment on them, explains agricultural economist David Adamson, at the University of Queensland.

Whose standards will we use in the future? What are we trading away?

“The more we have globalisation, the more we have travel, the more we send food around the world, the more this will occur to us,” says Professor Peter Collignon, infectious diseases expert from the Australian National University.

In the race to the bottom, where supermarkets are leading us, everyone loses.

cc photo by Joe Lodge

More elsewhere
Sydney Morning Herald: Julian Cribb, Toxic food: who’s really to blame?, February 20, 2015
ABC The World Today: Pat McGrath, Chinese frozen berry contamination raises questions about trade deal safety standards, 19 February, 2015.
The Guardian: AAP, Hepatitis A fear for South Australian children after they ate frozen berries, 18 February, 2015.
Food Magazine: Jasmine O’Donoghue, Food labelling bill reintroduced to parliament, 17 February, 2015.
Choice: Frozen berry fiasco, 16 February, 2015.
Queensland Health: Four Queensland hepatitis A cases linked to frozen berries, 16 February, 2015.
FSANZ: Recall: Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries, 15 February, 2015.
FSANZ: Recall: Nanna’s brand frozen berries (Mixed Berries and Raspberries), 14 February, 2015.

9 Responses to Hepatitis A frozen berries—in the race to the bottom, everyone loses

  1. Keltia says:

    Great post,

    It’s horrible to see this happen, especially where we have a thriving berry industry. I prefer to get mine right outside my door, I have only been able to pick a couple of raspberries at day. Having them in my garden I savour everyone. I also go foraging for blackberries in out of the way places, or I get my berries from local growers….

    However many people think they are being healthy by buying and eating these frozen products… I feel for those who are sick, the companies have a lot to be responsible for.

    1. Sharon says:

      Gosh you’re a good commenter Keltia! You’re very lucky to have them in your garden. I’ve just bought from local farmers. Love my summer fruits!

      Yes, that’s the thing, the people that buy the frozen fruit would be thinking of their health. Yet when the price is low, I’m afraid, something has to go.

      Hopefully there’ll be no further cases.

      1. Keltia says:

        I was just listening to local radio on the ABC Melbourne, a person was on there showing support for buying local, and she said yes I buy a box of fruit and vegetables that gets delivered to my door for $35, I can also get 500g of berries for $12. She also made the comment about you can do it you just have to look. Well my reply to her is get off her high horse and think before you open your mouth… I know all about how to hunt down fresh fruit bargains, I know about food miles, local produce…. I am a Converted Defender of Local Produce. However it not me that this should be directed at …maybe going after supermarkets, education… but my son made a comment to me the other day about those are on lower incomes. They dont really care about where the food comes from only that it is at there fingers tips and cheap…. so where do you start?

        1. Sharon says:

          The change has begun. The groundswell for local food strengthened as more people questioned supermarket power during the milk war, saw farmers plough in oranges and peaches, and the near collapse of the local processing industry. Chefs promoting local producers. Kids engaged in seasonality with school gardens. These berries and subsequent media coverage will start more people talking and thinking. More will be engaged over time.

          Those on social security and low wages need healthy food to be available, accessible and affordable. Some community food enterprises cater e.g. Produce to the People, 2 and 5 food, the Open Food Network and the ASRC Food Justice Truck. Community gardens, co-operatives and so on; this food is local and seasonal by default. I wouldn’t assume they don’t care where their food comes from, but circumstances may remove choice in the market economy.

          The former Labor government was going to support enterprises like these with the (albeit minute) $1.5 million Community Food Grants program. Yet with the change of government that’s been scrapped. So now there’s a greater call for a local food act.

          With support, who knows how much local and seasonal food will grow?

  2. moira instance says:

    Lots of people will sue I hope… I will

    1. Sharon says:

      I hope you weren’t affected Moira!

  3. Good post Sharon. This is very scary stuff for many reasons and highlights, once again, how broken our global food system is. Although fear-based, this health threat may get people thinking about local and seasonal food a little more. Or at least buying frozen berries that are produced in Australia.

    1. Sharon says:

      Thanks Jem! This is our horseburger. Indeed, and like how the English were reminded about their butchers, we may see a follow-on effect. It is a shame it has to come to this!

  4. […] of buying berries from China when we grow them in Australia. Stupidly Australia recently became a net importer of processed food, this being aided by the high Australian dollar, high domestic overheads and wage […]

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