Why The Whole “Hepatitis In Your Berries” Thing Is Still Important

Update: Berrylicious, why we should still be angry about the Hep A outbreak.
Words by: Paula Connell
Image source: The Drum

Australia prides itself on producing and maintaining a supreme food health system. We send our products overseas and market them as the best quality in the world. So when an outbreak of Hepatitis A – a disease that affects the liver and caused by products coming into contact with faeces – is directly traced to a product sold on Australian domestic shelves, it is important to ask questions regarding how this came to be.

Why weren’t these products subjected to the same rigorous food safety testing as Australian products when entering an Australian market?

The Department of Health has continued to update on the confirmed link between the product and disease. However, the source of the outbreak itself is still undetermined by authorities beyond the fact berries are a common link in all cases. According to an update provided by The Department of Health on the 25th March 2015 there were 28 cases nation-wide of the disease with direct links to the frozen berries. What is perhaps the most interesting information from the Department is how there have been a number of confirmed cases overseas in recent years where the direct cause was frozen berries. The brand associated with the outbreak is Nanna’s Mixed 1kg pack, however authorities have recalled 3 other products for precautionary reasons. All products were packed in China with the berries sourced from Canada, authorities believe.

ABC’s The Drum reported on the reasons Australia’s frozen berry market is dominated by overseas companies. Fresh berries from Australia are sold at $40 to $50 a kilo and are reasonably priced for Australia consumers. However once the product is frozen the price decreases to $9 per kilo. This price is much too low to sell the product for Australian producers due to the high wages of pickers and packers as well as regulatory costs. Free trade agreements and a high Australian currency are causing Australian producers to suffer further as they compete with the cheaper imports such as Nanna’s berries.

The outbreak has caused a public backlash and in result the Food Standards Australian New Zealand (FSANZ) suggests to upgrade the potential risk of imported berries to medium risk. Now 100% of imports from the suspected overseas facilities are subject to testing at the Australian border. However just a month after the breakouts in the disease and new food safety regulations are supposedly tightened The Guardian reported that the Head of the Department of Agriculture Paul Grimes admitted to the Senate  “We have not made changes on surveillance rates for berries broadly at this stage”. In the same article Greens Senator Rachel Siewert mirrors many opinions of the public stating, “The current regime failed in preventing the contaminated product entering the country in the first place, the government is not moving quickly enough to prevent further potential infection”.

She continues on to report on border security being “sluggishly reactive”.

Her comments are not operating on baseless presumptions: The FSANZ hasn’t even been to China yet to assess the conditions of the problem company.

While imports of the affected products ended in February, reactions to investigate the situation have been undeniably slow. To make matters worse, biosecurity staff across the board are about to take industrial action in protest of the government cut backs to wages, job security and work conditions.