Patties Foods ran into a number of difficulties when conducting their Nanna’s berries recall, but the most surprising was the lack of Hepatitis A testing facilities in Australia.
“The difficulty in Australia is up until recently, there hasn’t been a rigorous testing regime around Hepatitis A in food products because it hasn’t been considered to be a high risk virus in food production, so not many laboratories actually tested for it so when this recall incident came about, it was very difficult to get people quickly doing the testing because they had to effectively learn how to do the tests,” said Steven Chaur, CEO and Managing Director of Patties Foods.
Following the recall in February, there were a number of tests carried out both in Australia and overseas.
Both the Department of Health and Patties used the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), as according to Chaur, they were “the most advanced on setting up regular protocols on testing for Hepatitis.”
Patties Foods also sent 380 samples to specialist laboratories in the United States and Italy that specifically tests for Hepatitis in food products, none of which found a conclusive link to Hepatitis or E.Coli.
The Department of Health found two samples that tested trace positive to Hepatitis.
“One of those was from a consumer that had Hepatitis and also had a packet of berries and that test result came back inconclusive in relation to where the Hepatitis source came from,” Chaur said.
“There was another packet which was randomly purchased by the Health Department from a store in Geelong and they had that tested but it came up trace positive for Hepatitis but bordering on the limits of what they would call scientifically significant. So from that one sample, it was very difficult to draw a specific conclusion if it was indeed the berries that were the ultimate cause of the Hepatitis.”
But the difficulties for Patties didn’t end there.
“During the course of the recall it was actually very difficult to undertake proper product traceability tests because many of the 34 cases actually didn’t have any product left, they didn’t have any pack samples, they didn’t have any residual product, no use-by date codes, no barcodes, so it made it very much like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Chaur said.
In addition to testing samples for Hepatitis A, according to Assistant Minister for Health, Senator Fiona Nash, the Department of Health conducted rigorous scientific analysis of information from interviews with affected people, comparisons with people who were not ill and traced the source of berries eaten by affected people.
This led to the Department of Health's conclusion there was “very strong evidence that consumption of Nanna's 1kg fresh frozen mixed berries led to an increased risk of developing Hepatitis A infection in this outbreak.”
Chaur said despite this conclusion, there hasn’t been any scientifically definitive cause-related evidence to suggest it was the Nanna’s berries.
“The Health Department were relying on epidemiological surveys where they basically interviewed patients who’ve contracted Hepatitis A and undertook a questionnaire around trying to identify where the Hepatitis came from and in all cases, people consumed berries and by that there was a link drawn supposedly to Nanna’s being the common source.
"The facilities were tested in China, the product in our warehouses was tested, the product returned from supermarkets was tested and there was no evidence that there was a systematic amount of any virus of pathogen in the products,” he said.
Patties has announced it expects a loss of earnings of approximately $1.5m NPAT during FY15 resulting from the frozen berries recall.
“It’s fair to say that the sales of frozen berries was severely affected, and not only for Patties but for everyone in the category, this category has gone from a $200 million category growing at 40 percent per annum in supermarkets to now growing at 14 percent per annum and something like $50 million has been shaved off the retail sales value of the category.
“In terms of Patties products, our core savoury business, which is about 90 percent of our business, is actually in growth. We didn’t see any detrimental impact of the recall for brands like Four ‘n’ Twenty, Herbert Adams or Patties and those brands continued to remain in growth and interestingly enough, Nanna’s Apple Pies, which the brand is most famously known for, is actually in growth as well and we didn’t see any direct impact of the fruit recall,” he said.
“We saw definitely an impact in the first one to two weeks but certainly the brand has recovered since then.
Patties has since set up a laboratory in Sydney and implemented a ‘positive release’ protocol on all its frozen berry products, which means every batch is now tested in Australia for HAV and E.coli, and are only released to market when negative test results are provided.
All Nanna’s and Creative Gourmet berries now being released to supermarkets have passed this test with nil detection. Nanna’s and Creative Gourmet berries are amongst the most rigorously microbiologically tested berries now sold in the Australian market.
Are we better prepared?
Last month, FSANZ said they would not be increasing their surveillance of imported ready-to-eat (RTE) berries.
FSANZ completed a risk statement on hepatitis A virus and imported RTE berries which looked at the likelihood of a food safety issue occurring, the consequences and mitigating factors. The risk statement concluded that RTE berries produced and handled under Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Hygienic Practices (GHP) are not a medium to high risk to public health.
“From Patties Foods’ perspective that’s quite frustrating because we’re only one of thirty suppliers of berries into the country and we’ve taken extraordinary steps to make sure that these products are so rigorously tested, we’re testing up to four times from farm, to production, to export to landing in Australia, before it gets to consumer and that same standard doesn’t necessarily need to apply now to any other importer.
“We’ve worked with a number of suppliers locally to make sure that we’ve got capability to do Hepatitis A testing and of course we test every batch sample before it gets released to supermarkets in Australia so that same rigour doesn’t necessarily need to apply to any other supplier and we’d actually call for that standard to apply to everybody,” Chaur said.”