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Food safety expert says frozen berries hepatitis crisis a ‘wake-up call’ for fresh produce supply chain

Berries image

Image credit: Sergey Kukota / Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Melbourne, AU. — A food safety expert has urged companies across the fresh fruit, vegetable and nutsupply chain to redouble their food safety efforts in the face of an outbreak of foodborne illness attributed to hepatitis A virus (HAV), which has left at least 10 people infected in Australia.

Richard Bennett, Technology Manager at the Fresh Produce Safety Centre Australia-New Zealand (FPSC), has authored a fact sheet to help both industry and consumers to understand the food safety issues and dispel some of the myths associated with the current frozen berries hepatitis crisis.

The Frozen Berries Hepatitis A Virus Outbreak Fact Sheet is available for download via the FPSC website at www.freshproducesafety-anz.com/resources/berryhavfactsheet

“Australia’s food safety and quality assurance standards are widely recognised as being world-leading” he said. “Food safety in Australia comes under the regulatory authority of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and the Australian Food Standards Code. The Code applies equally to domestic production and imported food such as fresh and processed produce, and food safety certification is commercially mandatory to supply any of Australia’s major retailers.”

”But regulation can only do so much,” he added.  “We are fortunate that not many serious outbreaks have occurred in Australia. Outbreaks of this nature are rare but they do occur and the industry must be constantly vigilant and have crisis plans in place to respond when – not if – they happen.”

The FPSC is an industry-led, not-for-profit company established to enhance fresh produce food safety across Australia and New Zealand through research, outreach and education. Bennett says that both the FPSC and centre co-founder the Produce Marketing Association Australia-New Zealand (PMA A-NZ) support a review of this case of foodborne illness, as they would any similar case, if they believe that such a review may lead to improved food safety outcomes for Australian consumers.

“It certainly is a call to action across the entire horticultural sector, and businesses who are not engaged in that process of food safety compliance now, should take a good hard look at themselves and ask ‘why not?“

“In particular, such a review should objectively test the capability of the food safety preventive controls in place, seek gaps in the efficacy of the commercial and regulatory standards in place and clarify industry concerns relating to matters of fairness and equivalence” he said.

Bennett added that the fresh produce industry is responding to the need for improved understanding of fresh produce food safety through the formal establishment of the FPSC in 2014. The Centre is currently contracting two pieces of research and development, which were identified as priorities by industry over the last 18 months.

“We are in the process right now of commissioning and commencing two vital research projects.  One is to update our on-farm food safety guidelines, and in fact extend the scope of those guidelines to include further along the supply chain than just ‘on-farm’” he said.

“The second one is that we’re commissioning a literature review of microbial contamination associated with water use pre-harvest and post-harvest, and attributed to other sources of microbial contamination. It will look at the international literature and convey the best practice that comes out of the research that’s already been conducted, and identify any gaps where research has not been conducted to address crucial microbial contamination issues such as the ones we’re talking about now.”

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