Fruit import rules under fire

17 Feb, 2015 12:20 PM
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I was surprised to realise that most people didn’t think frozen berries were imported

THE human infection of Hepatitis A through frozen berries from China and Chile has prompted calls for more stringent produce accreditation for imported fruits and vegetables.

Last weekend Patties Foods recalled its Nanna’s Frozen Mixed Berries one kilogram product on advice from the Victorian Health Department over potential Hepatitis A contamination.

It then extended the recall to include Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries 300-gram and 500g packs on Sunday, followed by Nanna’s Raspberries 1kg packs on Tuesday this week.

The Victorian Health Department issued a recall of Nanna's frozen mixed berries earlier on Saturday, after three Hepatitis A sufferers in Victoria and one in New South Wales were found to have eaten the frozen fruit.

By 6pm on Tuesday, 10 people - three in Victoria, five in Queensland and two in New South Wales - had become sick with Hepatitis A after eating Nanna's frozen mixed berries.

Nanna's berries are packed in China and Chile. Consumers with concerns can call the Patties consumer hotline on 1800 650 069, between 7am and 9pm.

Aussie berries no problem

The Australian berry industries have reassured consumers that locally grown fruit is fine to eat.

Jonathan Eccles, executive officer, Raspberries and Blackberries Australia, told Fairfax Media he wasn’t surprised by the Hepatitis A findings within the imported frozen berries.

“I was surprised to realise that most people didn’t think frozen berries were imported,” he said.

The berry market within Australia is mostly fresh trade as growers and processors would struggle to compete against low cost foreign imports.

But Mr Eccles said Australian berries are available all year round so there was no need for consumers to buy frozen product.

He said the situation highlighted the need for improved country of origin labelling.

“We certainly believe consumers have the right to know where their food is coming from. The labelling is very confusing especially with labels like ‘made from local and imported’ ingredients,” he said.

The Hepatitis A cases have bolstered a push for imported products to adhere to the stringent food accreditation standards imposed on Australian growers.

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

“We expect other suppliers to have the same requirements.”

He said he’d already received some feedback from retailers that consumers were seeking out Australian berries but growers were concerned the entire industry would be tainted by the Nanna’s recall.

Berry image problem

Technology manager for the Fresh Produce Safety Centre Australia and New Zealand, Richard Bennett, said the recall could have positive or negative impacts on consumer perceptions of the berry category, both fresh and frozen from any origin.

“Some consumers who have glanced at, read, heard or seen general or social media coverage of this recall, even if they have not taken on board much of the detail, may consciously or subconsciously associate berries and illness when they are grocery shopping, and not purchase any berries in any form from any origin,” he said.

“Consumers who have absorbed the detail and know what to avoid may have developed better perceptions of Australian berries and will substitute local for imported.

“Consumers who regularly purchase frozen berries for their considerable health attributes may also not purchase less, but also purchase more fresh local product.”

But he said there is evidence from post-crisis consumer research in the United States and Europe that indicates protracted and inconclusive food borne illness incidents have longer-term negative impacts on consumers’ willingness to repurchase.

Call for action on labelling

Consumer group Choice called on the federal government to take action on country of origin food labelling following the national recall.

Choice spokesperson Tom Godfrey said one of the products in the recall, Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries, is listed on the Coles website as being ‘Packed in Australia using imported fruit’.

“This claim is totally meaningless when it comes to the country of origin of the fruit inside the pack,” he said.

“Consumers shouldn’t have to use country of origin labelling as a proxy for food safety, we should be able to purchase food on sale in our supermarkets knowing it’s safe to eat regardless of its origin.

“Australians should be able to make informed choices about the food they eat. We are renewing our call for simplification of country-of-origin labelling.

“It’s time to give consumers the information they want, remove the information they don’t, and test the way we label our food to make sure it’s meaningful.”

Ausveg echoed the sentiments of Choice.

Ausveg deputy CEO Andrew White said the company was 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,” Mr White said.

“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 that 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.

Low risk blood service concerns

The recall has had other flow-on effects with the Australian Red Cross Blood Service calling for anyone who consumed the recalled products and then gave blood either on or before November 1, 2014, to contact it on 13 14 95.

The Red Cross said while Hepatitis A possesses a very low risk to the blood supply because it is almost exclusively spread by ingestion of contaminated food, it was doing the call-out purely as a precautionary measure.

Current recall limited to berries

In October last year, Patties Foods released a frozen avocado product under the Nanna’s brand with fruit sourced from Peru.

The product contained snap frozen Hass avocados, peeled and diced into chunky pieces.

At the time, a Nanna’s spokesperson told Fairfax Media the company “adopts global sourcing of quality fruit to deliver the quantities of frozen product required by retailers, and consumers.”

Nanna’s says its Creative Gourmet and Patties Foods products remain unaffected by the current recall.

Patties Foods CEO Steven Chaur said investigations through its supply chain have identified a specific source of raspberries as a potential common link to the possible safety issues raised by health authorities.

“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 over the weekend,” he said.

“The supplier of raspberries is no longer used by Patties Foods.

“As a company, we apologise to our consumers and customers for the concern and distress this is causing.”

Consumers with enquiries are asked to call the Consumer Hotline, 1800 650 069, between 7am and 9pm AEDT.

GFV

Ashley Walmsley

is the editor of Good Fruit and Vegetables.
Date: Newest first | Oldest first

READER COMMENTS

Fred
17/02/2015 8:12:19 PM

Why do we continually blame the imported product. Have you ever considered the actual packing facility. Let's have a little balance in reporting and not emotive responses.

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