Berry importer calls for mass recall of all China fruit

Mike Glover owner and director of FSL Foods with a bag of the fruzio mixed berries they have recalled.
MARION VAN DIJK/FAIRFAX NZ

Mike Glover owner and director of FSL Foods with a bag of the fruzio mixed berries they have recalled.

A Mum is among four North Islanders diagnosed with hepatitis A in the frozen berry food safety scare but whilst she fell ill, her son didn't.

Of the four patients who ate frozen berries, two were from Auckland, one was from Wellington and another from Whakatane. 

When officials from the Ministry for Primary Industries visited their homes, two still had Fruzio berries in their freezer which have since tested negative for hepatitis A.

"The four patients here all ate Fruzio berries so ours was the one consistent but they also ate other berry brands," said Mike Glover, the owner of FSL Foods which imports the fruit under the Fruzio label.

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"We might never know if it was definitely ours. One Mum got it but her son didn't and he ate the berries too."

The batches are believed to have arrived in New Zealand and hit supermarket shelves sometime in late August or early September. The incubation period for the hepatitis A virus is between 15 and 50 days.

Glover said if the MPI thought thought his fruit was the source, it should recall all fruit imported from China's Shandong province.

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Earlier this year, 18 people in Australia contracted hepatitis A from frozen berries grown in Chile and China and packaged in China's Shandong Province. But Glover says this is the only link between his bags of frozen strawberries and blackberries and the four cases of hepatitis here. 

"There wasn't any direct evidence other than a link to the Shandong Province which is about 20 times bigger in landmass than the upper North Island. It's a huge area producing 80 per cent of the country's strawberries a year- about 120,000 tonnes."

Glover said the distance between the Chinese factory involved in the Australian cases and the Fruzio factory is 500 kilometres.

"If that's the basis for implicating our berries why aren't they recalling all Chinese fruit from that province?"

MPI director of plants, food and environment Peter Thomson said investigations had not yet revealed a specific cause of the hepatitis cases but recent outbreaks in other countries suggested the frozen berry link. He said investigations were ongoing and he did not rule out recalls of other products.

Glover said MPI had been professional and considerate but it came as a shock to him at 5pm last Thursday when MPI delivered the news his products were under specific scrutiny. He said Fruzio had since voluntarily withdrawn other products where frozen Chinese strawberries were mixed with Serbian blackberries as a precaution although there were no issues with the Serbian-sourced fruit.

Hepatitis A is spread by eating or drinking food or water contaminated with infected faeces.

Glover said after almost 13 years of business his 20 staff were distraught. His Chinese procurement manager visits the factory in question regularly and the producers Fruzio dealt with had the highest food safety certificate and tested random samples of their fruit regularly for hepatitis A.

"The plant we get our fruit from employes 300-400 people all of whom are innoculated against hepatits A. These guys in China aren't bunnies. The product is not even handled by human hands."

He said MPI had been through his Nelson plant and checked his staff, who have all been innoculated. No traces of hepatitis have been found. "

"The first decision we have to make is can we source safe berries and the answer is of course we can. I have to say to you there is not one whisker I would change in terms of the security of our supply. I would put the same product in any marketplace. The Chinese do stringent testing."

His company this week recalled 500g/1kg bags of Fruzio mixed berries, 1kg bags of Fruzio strawberries and 1kg bags of blackberries with best before dates of September and October 2018. The company would continue importing blueberries and mango from Canada and Thailand which hadn't had any issues.

"Our job now is to rebuild our brand."

Symptoms of hepatitis A

The time between infection and symptoms, in those who develop them, is between two and six weeks. As the illness develops, the symptoms are fever, jaundice, loss of appetite, nausea, abdominal discomfort, fatigue, dark urine. Hepatitis A is highly contagious and can be spread through poor hygiene, sharing toothbrushes, facecloths or towels, contaminated food from an infected food handler and through close personal contact.

Cases of hepatitis A from frozen berries

2015: At least 18 people in Australia contracted hepatitis A from frozen berries grown in Chile and China and packaged in China.

2013-2014: More than 1400 cases of hepatitis A were reported in 12 European countries in an outbreak linked to batches of mixed frozen berries.

2013: 118 people became ill with hepatitis A and 47 hospitalised after an outbreak in the United States linked to a frozen berry mix containing fruit from the United States, Argentina, Chile, and Turkey.

2002: Between 17 and 29 cases of hepatitis A in Auckland were found to have been caused by Waikato blueberries harvested at Marshmeadow Gardens when its believed an infected child of a worker was there.

1997: 153 cases of hepatitis A in pupils and teachers in Michigan, USA, and more cases in other states were traced to contaminated strawberries grown in Mexico but frozen and processed in California before being served in school lunch programmes

 - Sunday Star Times

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