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Australian food company recalls berries after hep A outbreak linked to China

Monday, February 16, 2015 - 09:46

[SYDNEY] An Australian company has recalled its frozen berry products following a hepatitis A outbreak linked to poor hygiene and water supplies in a Chinese packaging plant, reigniting fears about the safety of the Asian giant's food exports.

Australian authorities were investigating on Monday after five people fell sick after eating the Patties Foods Ltd berries, which were grown in both Chile and China before being packaged at the Chinese factory.

There has long been concern about food safety in China, where pollution from rapid industrialisation has exacted a heavy toll on soil and water. Poor hygiene in production and packaging plants has also been a problem.

Contamination scandals that led to deaths and serious illnesses have increased the popularity in China of imports of European infant formula, New Zealand milk and Japanese rice.

More than 11,000 school children in Germany were laid low in October 2012 by diarrhoea and vomiting that authorities linked to frozen strawberries imported from China.

The Chinese Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine refuted those claims, saying tests showed no sign of contamination.

The department of health in Australia's Victoria state confirmed the contamination in the latest case had been traced back to China.

"The particular risk that we've identified here is that a country that has endemic hepatitis A, that is China, has been involved with packing these berries," Finn Romanes, the department's senior medical adviser, told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

"Clearly there's strong evidence that there may have been a contamination during the packing process as they are fully sealed and then transported to Australia."

It was not immediately known what other products, if any, the Chinese supplier produced for export, he added.

Patties said its quality control testing had not shown any safety issues with its frozen berries products, although further detailed microbiological testing was being carried out.

Shares in the company, which said it was likely to cut ties with the unnamed Chinese supplier, were down 9.5 per cent at A$1.24 in mid-morning trade, after falling as low as A$1.14.

"We have moved quickly to recall all our frozen mixed berries until such time as we receive the results of further laboratory tests," chief executive Steven Chaur said in a statement, adding it was too early to say whether the recall would impact the company's finances.

The symptoms of hepatitis A can include nausea and fever. The disease is passed through contact with material that has been contaminated with faeces from an infected person.

REUTERS