Photo: JAXPORT / Flikr, CC BY 2.0

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has released its risk statement on ready-to-eat (RTE) frozen berries and hepatitis A virus (HAV) following an extensive review of the incident involving Patties Foods. Using an internationally recognised food safety risk assessment approach, FSANZ has concluded that “…hepatitis A virus in RTE berries produced and handled under Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Hygienic Practices (GHP) is not a medium to high risk to public health.”

Given the sporadic appearance of HAV in food, the nature of HAV illness and the behaviour of HAV in food, the FSANZ conclusion is obvious and defendable.

The frequency of foodborne HAV outbreaks is extremely low, particularly when considering the volume of RTE potential host foods that are traded and particularly from countries where HAV is endemic. RTE foods such as berries are regularly traded from many countries in Europe, Asia, Central and South America and Africa so it is imperative that producers in those countries can demonstrate GAP and GHP.

HAV itself is not the virulent, life-threatening illness that is the domain of many bacterial infections. According to FSANZ, small children mostly do not show symptoms and for children and adults who are symptomatic, full recovery can be expected in a few weeks. Bacterial illnesses Salmonella Listeria, norovirus and pathogenic Escherichia coli can all be fatal and account for 93% of the estimated 4.1 million cases, 31,000 hospitalisations and 86 deaths in Australia each year.

For those thinking we have just survived a HAV epidemic, there have been 97 cases of HAV to end of April 2015 compared to 105 cases to end of April 2014, despite the 34 cases attributed to the frozen berries incident. FSANZ reports that people returning home from overseas travel account for nearly half of all cases. The long-term Australian trend for HAV infection is significantly down.

The final strong foundation for the FSANZ conclusion is the inability of HAV to grow in food. Unlike bacterial pathogens, the FAT-TOM (Food-Acidity-Temperature-Time- Oxygen-Moisture) equation doesn’t apply. Fortunately, high temperatures are an effective kill step but boiling raspberries before consumption just doesn’t appeal to most consumers.
So, what will be the outcomes of this assessment?

First, the Department of Agriculture will require importers of berries to provide evidence of GAP and GHP from 19th May 2015. How this will be policed is unclear but it should be comforting to those who insist that the playing field has been uneven in the past. This will be in addition to the usual expectation that Australian importers and processors will apply the appropriate rigour to their approved supplier programs, as processors would with their domestic suppliers.

Second, frozen berries associated with the product recalled by Patties Foods are currently a medium risk when it comes to the Department of Agriculture process of applying testing and other import controls. As all RTE berry imports are now low risk, the level of testing can be expected to be reduced. Testing for HAV is unreliable regardless and testing for E.coli as an indicator of hygienic production methods is far more reliable and will be applied accordingly, in conjunction with the preventive approach indicated above.

Click here to read the full FSANZ advice on hepatitis A and imported ready-to-eat berries.

This article is also available on the PMA-ANZ website. PMA-ANZ is a founding supporter of the Fresh Produce Safety Centre.