As consumers we rely on suppliers and supermarkets to ensure that the products they sell are healthy and fit for consumption. We can read ingredients labels to see if they are locally made or to ensure they contain nothing patently harmful. But that’s about it; after that we have no choice but to trust that what we buy is safe. So when something as innocuous as frozen berries causes a Hepatitis A outbreak in Australia, there is reason for serious concern.
Screening system under fire
The offending product has been identified as Nanna’s Frozen Mixed Berries, packed in China and distributed through major supermarkets such as Woolworths and IGA by a Victorian company. At the time of writing there were 18 related cases of Hepatitis A, a virus caused by faecal contaminated food. The virus starts with fever and vomiting and, after a few days can cause jaundice (yellow eyes) and urinary issues. Health Department officials say the berries were most likely infected by vermin prior to packaging. While they have now been recalled, consumer confidence has been hit hard and grave doubts have been raised about Australian screening and labelling, particularly for imported products.
AUSVEG calls for change
AUSVEG, the industry representative body for vegetable growers, has received a huge number of complaints from outraged consumers. As a result they are now stepping up their campaign for major reform to product screening procedures and country of origin labelling laws (CoOL). They are also supporting an online petition by consumer advocacy group CHOICE calling on the Federal Government to reform laws so consumers can be more confident about the food they buy.
While Australia’s imported food controls are among the best in the world, cheap imported goods can slip under the radar and dupe consumers. Deceptive labelling can even make it hard to tell if products have been manufactured outside Australia. Customs currently only test about 5% of imported fruits and vegetables, so the recipe for disaster is well and truly in place.
Support from the top
The Federal Minister for Agriculture, Hon. Barnaby Joyce MP, has joined the chorus demanding change and has called for a wide-ranging review of the current system. The results of this will hopefully be threefold: clearer CoOL laws making it easy for consumers to tell where food they are buying comes from; more stringent screening of potentially harmful products arriving in Australia; and stronger measures to ensure local producers can compete with cheap imports. Clearly, if we can all buy local on a much larger scale and reduce the market for shoddy imported goods, the chances of another health scare are greatly reduced.