Australia mulls over tougher food screening after berries from China linked to hepatitis

A picture made available on Feb 17, 2015 shows a packet of frozen Nanna's brand Mixed Berry pictured in Brisbane, Australia, on Feb 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA 
A picture made available on Feb 17, 2015 shows a packet of frozen Nanna's brand Mixed Berry pictured in Brisbane, Australia, on Feb 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA 

SYDNEY (AFP) - Tougher food screening measures could be introduced in Australia with frozen berries from China linked to a growing number of hepatitis A infections, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said on Wednesday.

Nanna's and Creative Gourmet brand raspberries and mixed berries have been recalled after they were linked to four infections in New South Wales and Victoria states, with poor hygiene and contaminated water at their packing factory thought to be responsible. Since then, more infections have emerged in Queensland and Western Australia, with the government confirming at least 13 cases nationally so far.

Asked whether the scare demanded more controls on imports, Mr Joyce said: "That might be a consequence of a review that is being undertaken. The health ministers (of states and territories) are discussing this issue right now," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Mr Joyce also called for a strengthening of Australian labelling laws on food products and urged consumers to buy local produce. "We have stronger laws, we do have stronger oversight to make sure we have a cleaner, green product than what comes in from overseas," he said. "That's why you pay a premium for Australian product... I want to make sure that when you pick up something, you can look at the can and say 'this is Australian'. It's slightly dearer but by gosh it's safer."

However, Prime Minister Tony Abbott was cool on labelling changes, warning it could impose more regulation on business.

"The bottom line is that companies shouldn't be poisoning their customers," he said.

“We’re certainly looking at what we can do to toughen up screening, but we also need to look to business to lift its game here.”

The recalled products were packed in China and contained raspberries, strawberries and blackberries grown there, and blueberries from Chile.Australia’s Agriculture Department said it was engaging with the Chinese authorities through its embassy in Beijing, “seeking assurances about the safety of further shipments of frozen berries exported from China”.It has also requested a review of the risk status of frozen berries from Food Standards Australia New Zealand, although it noted that the hepatitis virus is often present in such low levels it cannot be detected in contaminated food.

Hepatitis A is a viral disease that affects the liver, causing abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and jaundice. It has an incubation period of up to 50 days.

Australian regulators currently consider imported frozen berries "surveillance foods" - meaning they are tested at a rate of only 5 per cent of all consignments for 49 agricultural chemical residues, as well as packaging and labelling requirements.

The Department of Health said the source of the hepatitis A virus was still unconfirmed, but added: "The berries are the only common exposure for all cases."