Since Thursday last week, five Victorians and two people from NSW have tested positive for hepatitis A after eating Nanna's brand frozen mixed berries. The berries, stocked by Coles, Woolworths, and IGA have been recalled nationally and Nanna's is advising anyone with berries bought after October 2014 to throw them out. On Sunday the recall was extended to Creative Gourmet mixed berries, which are packaged in the same plant as Nanna's. As Hep A is typically spread by faecal-oral transmission, there are some big questions for both brands about where they've been sourcing their product.
Professor Mark Tamplin, the food safety centre leader at the University of Tasmania, attributes hepatitis outbreaks to poor hygiene and says they're relatively easy to track. "With viruses like hepatitis, you can almost always put your finger on the specific source which are nearly always human," he says.
The recalled berries were grown in China and Chile before being imported to Australia via Bairnsdale, in Eastern Victoria. And while Professor Tamplin agrees it's easy to blame third-world health standards, he insists accusations should wait until an investigation has taken place. "We know that developed countries are also responsible for well over half of the outbreaks," he says. "In the U.S, for example, they've been found responsible for over 70 percent of their own food-borne illness."
In 2013 around 50 people in the US became infected with hepatitis A from frozen berries sourced locally as well as the Middle East. Some cases were so severe that patients required liver transplants. One of the most extreme outbreaks was in Shanghai in 1988, where around 300,000 contracted the virus from contaminated shellfish.
Like other forms of the virus, hepatitis A is highly infectious and causes a breakdown of liver function which causes Hep A's tell-tale yellow eyes and skin. Other symptoms include fever, malaise, appetite loss, nausea, and abdominal pain. The virus is spread via ingesting faecal matter from infected people, either from directly handled food, or more commonly through water polluted with sewage.
As Professor Tamplin describes, it's a seriously contagious virus so only the smallest amount of contamination is needed to cause an outbreak. "It can take as little as one to 10 individual viruses to make a person ill," he says. "So you can imagine you might have a million or more particles of the virus in a gram of faeces. Then imagine dividing that million by the amount of water used in berry agriculture. That's a lot of opportunities to get sick."
Obviously this situation is a PR nightmare for Patties Foods, who owns Nanna's, but in a detail echoed by the 2013 US case, consumers have taken to Facebook to voice their outrage at how the company is handling the crisis. As one Facebook user posted on Monday, "Your business is going to suffer if you don't handle this properly. We shouldn't have to ring your hotline number, all the information we need should be easily accessible on Facebook and your website. No information is on the Patties website!"
Nanna's and Patties were unavailable for comment when we tried to get a response. Instead a Facebook message informs customers that "we appreciate your concern, and are working closely with health authorities in the interests of public safety. We are posting updates on our Facebook and are asking consumers with enquiries to call our Consumer Hotline."
Finally, it's possible that the bulk of the contamination hasn't yet been identified. As a hepatitis A infection doesn't become apparent for 14–28 days, further cases could yet develop. For the moment, anyone concerned about the berries they've recently eaten is advised to contact their GP or Nurse On Call on 1300 60 60 24.
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