As the fears associated with Hepatitis A risks from eating imported frozen berries continue, calls are mounting for measures to prevent risks of future outbreaks.
Eating only Australian grown fruit and vegetables, better country-of-origin labelling and stricter biosecurity controls are among measures being called for.
However these are not issues that have emerged overnight.
For more than 20 years the Country Women’s Association of NSW has lobbied against the importation of foods and to improve biosecurity laws so that Australia’s fruit and vegetable industries are protected and the possibility of food contamination is reduced.
The CWA of NSW has contributed submissions to a number of proposed frameworks relating to agricultural legislation, including the NSW Biosecurity Act 2014 and the National Food Plan in 2011.
NSW CWA president Tanya Cameron says: “Australian farmers are required to adhere to strict food safety policies and this latest health scare highlights an opportunity for consumers to show their support for local farmers and buy homegrown products.
“Appropriate food labelling is just one part of the problem - at the end of the day it doesn’t matter which country it’s from, what matters is whether it is safe.
“Constant assurances have been given over that time that the processes in place were adequate.
“If that is the case, how do we now find ourselves at risk of contracting Hepatitis A from contaminated fruit imported from overseas?
“The Department of Agriculture operates a risk-based border inspection scheme to monitor importers’ compliance with sourcing food that meets Australia’s food standards.
“According to the Department’s Imported Food Inspection Data report for January – June 2014, horticulture – which includes fresh and processed fruit and vegetables - was the second highest single commodity (after seafood) requiring inspection.
“However fruit was only tested as a ‘surveillance food’ for pesticides using electronic profiles.
“Clearly not a good enough system, especially when our local growers are subject to such high standards.
“Where will you now buy your fruit and vegetables?”
Anthony Sarks, the owner of Ricardoes Tomatoes and Strawberries, which operates as a grower and pick-your-own site, near Port Macquarie, believes the Hepatitis A scare points to the importance of buying fresh produce locally.
He believes consumers are confused by the wording on labels of items purchased from supermarkets. “Just because it says ‘packaged in Australia’ people automatically think it’s local,” he said.
“Who would have thought they’d possibly catch Hepatitis from eating berries? It’s pretty scary actually.”
Mr Sarks said the latest incident was a wake-up call which could prove to be beneficial down the track.
“Make it a habit of buying locally – the produce tastes better, is far more nutritious, is better value for money and supports our local workforce,” he said.
Penny Tideman, owner of Ticoba Blueberry Farm at Comboyne, agreed that Australia’s country of origin labelling was inadequate and misleading.
Up to 50 per cent of fruit or vegetables in a package can be from overseas and it can still be labelled as containing a mixture of Australian and imported ingredients, Mrs Tideman said.
That’s not good enough, she said. “Labels have to say what percentage of fruit is from overseas and where it’s from.”
Ticoba usually sells all its crop as fresh blueberries, but when fresh fruit is not available she recommends people only buy frozen Australian fruit.
However if they have to buy imported fruit people deserve to know exactly what they are getting, so they can make an informed choice.