The company implicated in a health scare in Australia has defended its food safety practices, after tests of recalled and non-recalled frozen berries were shown to be negative for Hepatitis A virus (HAV) and E. coli.
Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash defended the link however, claiming there was very strong evidence consumption of the company's Nanna's Mixed Berries 1kg product would raise the risk of infection, agency AAP reported.
The Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) has advised 31 HAV cases have been linked epidemiologically to Patties Foods. The product that was recalled was initially packed in China, sourcing Chinese and Chilean berries.
In a release, Patties Foods CEO Steven Chaur said extensive microbiological and viral testing showed "no evidence of systemic failure of Patties Foods’ quality assurance programs", but the company continued to work with the Department of Agriculture, Farming & Food (DAFF), DHHS and global suppliers to conclude the investigation.
Patties has recently recommenced supply of all Nanna's and Creative Gourmet berry lines except the 'Mixed Berries' product to Australian supermarkets, emphasizing all batches will be tested for HAV and E. coli prior under a 'positive release' regime.
"Our microbiological and viral testing does not confirm any link between Nanna’s Mixed Berries and HAV. However, we are guided by the epidemiology provided by the DHHS and accordingly have taken proactive and collaborative measures to ensure public safety.
"If our Nanna’s product was the source, the lack of laboratory findings from the testing conducted by Patties Foods for the presence of E.coli, Coliforms or HAV indicates there has been no systemic failure."
The company sent around 360 packs of frozen berries for testing in European, North American and Australian labs, which took longer than anticipated because of the logistics challenges of maintaining the integrity of such large volumes during transport to the world's leading accredited laboratories.
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Chaur said since Patties was notified of a potential link between HAV and its products, it had ceased importing from possible sources of potential contamination, and increased its testing regime to cover 100% of containers of imported berries from all countries; not just China.
"As well, we have introduced tighter sensitivity tests of E.coli from <3cfu/g to now a maximum limit of 1cfu/g on ALL fruit batches. This level of E.coli testing is the most sensitive possible," he said.
"No detection of E.coli has been found in any sample. E.coli is a marker for poor hygiene, faecal matter and potentially HAV, and is readily identifiable in laboratory testing.
"Patties Foods has also re-tested as a precautionary measure all batches of frozen berries not subject to the recall in our Australian warehouses. This includes berries and fruits from Chile, Vietnam and Peru. No evidence of HAV or E.coli has been detected in any batch."
Chaur highlighted frozen berries were a very popular product in Australia with more than 24 million packs sold in supermarkets each year.
"Consumer demand for frozen berries has grown at over 40% a year over recent years," he said.
"The overwhelming majority of frozen berries consumed in Australia are imported, and Patties Foods is one of about 30 companies which import frozen berries. Patties Foods is the only frozen berry importer which has achieved a Food Import Certification Agreement (FICA) compliance from the DAFF for frozen berry and fruit imports.
"This compliance operates to much higher standards than regular importers, and it documents and regularly audits Patties Foods for Australian food safety compliance."
Despite the strong import focus, he said Patties was keen to engage with local Australian berry growers to develop a locally sourced berry range.
"This will require investment in specialised freezing technology and development of commercial crop volumes required to meet consumer frozen berry demand," Chaur said.
"It could take some time to develop the infrastructure and crops, given long seasonal lead times. In the meantime, the company will continue to source berries from China, Chile and other global regions where producers specialise in frozen berry production."
He added frozen berries had a strong value proposition compared to fresh berries, with respective prices of AUD$10 per kilogram versus AUD$35-45 per kilogram.
"Until local producers can meet volume, technology and cost requirements, consumer demand in supermarkets is likely to continue to be met through global sourcing, with rigorous safety testing standards and consistent labelling requirements. Patties Foods wants to be an active participant in further developing the local industry.
"Now the testing has been completed with no systemic quality failure, the company is working with its major supermarket partners to actively re-engage consumer confidence in the frozen berry category."