‘‘FROZEN imported berries should be boiled for one minute before consumption. Boiling for one minute will destroy the [hepatitis A] virus,’’ states the government website.
‘‘If the label does not state the country of origin, you should assume that the berries are imported. The shop where you purchased the berries may be able to provide this information.’’
More useful advice from the government. The Irish government, that is, on its food safety authority website.
It may surprise many Australians to learn that frozen berries have caused many outbreaks of hepatitis A in Europe and elsewhere. The product, it seems, is prone to this problem.
If Australian consumers are surprised by this, Australian berry farmers are not. Infuriated by the Australian government’s lax attitude to the safety of imported food, farmers are complaining loudly about the stringent measures they are required to observe to ensure their berries won’t make consumers sick.
Why, they ask, if they have to take such care, doesn’t the government demand that imported products are subjected to the same conditions and scrutiny?
It’s a good question, and one the government hasn’t answered yet. Now that more than a dozen people across Australia have contracted liver disease from Nanna’s brand berries imported from China by Patties Foods, the government has suggested that it may be forced to review its monitoring laws.
In the meantime, perhaps consumers might like to take the understandable precaution of buying only Australian berry products, to avoid the possibility of being poisoned by foods prepared in unhygienic conditions overseas.
That would mean, however, having food labelling laws that permitted such decisions to be easily made. Australia’s laws in this area are often criticised as weak, ambiguous or even designed to help importers trick consumers.
Importers and retailers are frequently caught cheating with their labels, pretending that cheap foreign products are premium Australian goods and charging accordingly. But even labels that follow the law to the letter can be extremely hard to understand or rely on.
Australian farmers and consumer groups have been fighting for years for a more honest labelling system to make it easy to identify genuinely Australian-grown and packaged food. The current hepatitis outbreak has prompted more such calls, but already the government is talking the idea down.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, for example, has warned that more red tape and regulation of the private sector could lead to higher food prices for consumers.
Of course the big importers and retailers want things left as they are, but the government should also recognise a responsibility to Australian farmers and consumers.