The Big Issues Uncovered By The Frozen Berries Scare

  • Article by Amy Bradney-George
  • February 20, 2015 at 10:11 AM

The usually well-stocked shelves of supermarket freezers around Australia have gaping holes where frozen berries usually sit, after Nanna’s and Creative Gourmet had to recall stock due to a Hepatitis A outbreak.

Warnings about the outbreak first came on Valentine’s Day, and poured in thick and fast in the week following the news as more and more people tested positive for the virus. Initially, it was just frozen packages of Nanna’s Mixed Berries that were recalled, but further testing led to alerts for Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries, and then Nanna’s frozen raspberries.

According to Patties Foods, which owns both brands, the raspberries were the “potential link” between all three recalled products and came from a specific source in China. Patties Foods has said it is working proactively with health authorities to manage the situation, but maintains a stance that the blame is not with them

In a shareholder announcement on 16th February 2015, Patties Foods MD & CEO, Steven Chaur, released the following statement to that effect:

“While our quality control testing to date has not revealed any indicators with the food safety of either product, further detailed microbiological testing is being done and the recall is an important step to ensure public safety and confidence.”

Hepatitis A is a virus that primarily affects the liver, with symptoms ranging from dark urine to jaundice, nausea, abdominal pain and fever. The Health Victoria website’s information page on the berries recall says anyone that has not previously had Hepatitis A, or has not been vaccinated, can be infected, but that it can take between 15 to 50 days after exposure for symptoms to show.

“People can get the infection if they have direct contact with food, drinks or objects contaminated by the faeces (poo) of an infected person,” Health Victoria says.

“The virus can survive for several hours outside the body but persists on the hands and in food for even longer and is resistant to heating and freezing. Heating and/or freezing food does not remove the risk of Hepatitis A infection.”

It is thought that the berries were exposed to contaminated water, which could have been used in growing the berries or during the packaging process, or poor hygiene from Chinese workers.

Made In Australia = grown overseas?

The berries scare has brought to light the fact that many companies sell frozen produce that is sourced from China or other international locations. It’s a fact many Australians were not previously aware of and has led to ongoing conversations about the origins of frozen fruit and vegetables.

The government is looking at current quarantine standards, as well as the labelling for foods, to ensure greater safety for consumers. In an interview with the ABC, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce explains that these two options are the most effective options.

“I think we have to strengthen our labelling laws and we currently have a review before us which I believe needs to be stronger than what it actually came into my office [as],” he says.

The current labelling system allows companies to state that their products are “Made In Australia” if at least 50% of the cost to produce it was incurred locally. That means food (and other raw materials) could still be sourced from overseas, but processed and packaged locally with at Made In Australia label.

As the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) website explains, that means that mixed produce (such as mixed berries or vegetables), that could be from a variety of sources both local and foreign.

Products that say they are “Grown in Australia” or a “Product of Australia”, on the other hand, must have “each significant ingredient or part of the product originated in the country claimed and almost all of the production processes occurred in that country.”

But prior to the Hepatitis A mixed berries incident, many Australians were unaware of the specifics of this labelling system. After all, it would be easy to assume that something saying “Made In Australia” is made completely locally.

That’s why Joyce has said it’s important for the public to know where their food comes from and make informed decisions about what they buy (and where it comes from), indicating locally-grown produce was the ideal option.

“If you want … better control of faecal contamination, which is a polite word for poo, if you want to make sure it’s a clean, green product with the most stringent protections on it, then look for the country of origin and make sure you buy Australian.”

The “Australian Made” logo – the yellow kangaroo

The Australian Made yellow kangaroo is an iconic image that we’ve come to associate with local products, brands and industries. It was first launched in 1986 by then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and is now administered by Australian Made Campaign Limited (AMCL), a not-for-profit company that’s under contract from the Federal Government.

The AMCL says that the logo comes with with a strict set of rules (Code of Practice) that govern how it can be used.

“Products must be registered with AMCL and must meet the criteria in the Code of Practice to use the logo,” it says.

But AMCL also notes that the yellow kangaroo can be used to represent different levels of connection to Australia, explaining that the logo “can be used with several different descriptors underneath.”

Australian Made logo

These include “Australian Made”, “Australian Grown” and “Product of Australia” as well as “Australian Seafood”, and “Australia” – all with different requirements that match up with the definitions outlined above. Apart from the words underneath the kangaroo, all of these logos are identical, so seeing a yellow kangaroo on your food does not mean it is all sourced from Australia.

Other reasons to buy Australian food

While health and hygiene are big enough reasons to choose Australian grown fruit and vegetables, there are a number of other reasons to look for labels with “Grown in Australia” and “Product of Australia” statements.

For starters, it supports Australian farmers and other agricultural workers, which means the money from sales goes directly back to other Australians. It also means there is less distance for food to travel and, as Barnaby Joyce pointed out, a reduced risk of food contamination due to the strict processing standards in Australia.

The benefits of buying Australian also extend to animal products and fresh fruit and veg. Approximately 72% of all fish (both fresh and tinned), for example, is from international sources. According to the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC), the biggest sources for fish and shellfish are Thailand, New Zealand, Vietnam and China.

The environment in which the fish live, the standards for catching them and the transportation process can all have an affect on the quality and health risks, although it is worth noting that the FRDC has found that sometimes production standards are higher overseas.

Fresh fruit and vegetables, on the other hand, are usually sourced in Australia, but could be from overseas if it is out of season locally. A Choice report says that around 4% of fresh fruit and vegetables come from overseas, which often compromises the quality of the produce.

“Grapes may be imported from the US (packed with sulphur dioxide to prevent mould growth), while asparagus can come from Peru,” Choice says.

During the summer months in Australia, lemons and other citrus fruit are often sourced from California, as are berries in the winter months. Choice says both storage and quarantine procedures can affect the quality of this produce. It specifically notes that:

“Imported fruit and vegetables may be fumigated with methyl bromide to comply with quarantine regulations.”

While the Department of Agriculture says that the concentrations of methyl bromide used are typically safe for humans, in large concentrations it can have a serious impact on the nervous system. In comparison, Australian grown produce does not get sprayed with it at all (except, perhaps, if it is exported to another country).

Why some companies’ source produce from Australian and overseas

The confusion over “Made in Australia” labels has left many people wondering why companies would mix Australian and foreign food in the one package. Usually, the reasons are to do with supply and demand.

Patties Foods, for example, has said that its frozen mixed berries are sourced from overseas due to the volume they require. In an email to a concerned parent regarding the Hepatitis A outbreak, the company wrote:

“Australian growers cannot always provide either the quantity or the quality that we require on an ongoing basis.”

The same could be argued for out-of-season fruit and vegetables, or even for animal products. When there is a high demand for any type of food, companies often have to seek out other suppliers.

In the email response above, for example, Patties says that its “policy was to acquire Australian fruit wherever possible”. But a report from the Sydney Morning Herald states that Patties and its subsidiaries have sourced berries from China, New Zealand, Canada, Chile, United States, Greece, Turkey and Serbia for the past two years.

Other food labels outline similar sentiments in the fine print on packaging. Frozen fruit, vegetables, fish and other goods, for example, could say that they are “made in Australia from local and imported ingredients”, with no details of the proportions of each.

This kind of labelling gives companies the opportunity to vary where their food comes from based on what is available throughout the year. In theory, that should mean consumers get the best quality all the time, but obviously that is not always the case in practise – as the contaminated, frozen berries case highlights all too seriously.

Image credits: The recalled Nanna’s and Creative Gourmet berries, source: Food Standards (screenshot); The Australian Made logos, source: the Australian Made website (screenshot)

nannas pics
  • June 09, 2015 at 3:22 PM

    […] move was spurred on by an outbreak of Hepatitis A that was linked to imported berries in February, but industry representatives say it’s been a […]