Previous Issues

Hepatitis A and food testing: What lessons were learned by governments from last time?

Published: 10 Mar 2015

By Joe Lederman and Gemma Mainland (FoodLegal Consultant)

FoodLegal Lawyers and Consultants

© Lawmedia Pty Ltd, March 2015

 

Five years ago, FoodLegal Bulletin posed the question “Is Australia ready for a food-borne virus outbreak?” and decried Australia’s unreadiness for more foodborne viral illnesses. This article examines what little has happened since the last major outbreak in 2009-2010. FoodLegal provides crisis management services for food businesses.

 

In early 2009, a hepatitis outbreak alleged to have been caused by semi-dried tomatoes raised questions about Australia’s food testing regime and regulations – especially in areas of monitoring, testing, tracing and containing food-borne viruses.

In early 2015, another outbreak of Hepatitis A has occurred and was alleged to be linked to imported frozen berries.

At the time of the 2009 outbreak, FoodLegal Bulletin published an editorial article “Is Australia ready for a food-borne virus outbreak?

What has happened since 2009? Here is our summary:

1.            FSANZ Proposal P1012

FSANZ responded to the 2009 outbreak by commencing work on FSANZ ‘Proposal P1012: Semi-dried tomatoes & ingredients – traceability and processing’. However, this proposal was subsequently abandoned in favour of a more generalist proposal not limited specifically to tomatoes – which in turn was also abandoned, leading to no changes to the Food Standards Code.

‘Proposal P1012: Semi-dried tomatoes and ingredients – traceability and processing’, was released in September 2010 after a request from the Victorian Department of Health, and was prepared under FSANZ’s urgency powers. These urgency powers would enable FSANZ to declare a proposal or application as urgent when it is considered necessary in the interests of public health and safety.

The Proposal sought to vary the Food Standards Code to “include traceability and processing requirements for semi-dried tomatoes and the ingredients such as tomatoes and other foods likely to be used in semi-dried tomatoes”.

FSANZ was considering whether to draft specific regulatory measures to be introduced into the Food Standards Code for semi-dried tomatoes and/or the ingredients used in their manufacturing.

However, the measures appeared to be rigid and unreasonable and might have led to the shut down of all Australia’s domestic production of semi-dried tomatoes without proper justification.

Numerous submissions to the Proposal argued that “more general and preventative food safety measures” should be developed.

Four alternative options of measures were proposed by FSANZ in the public consultation:

  1. To continue with P1012 and develop semi-dried tomato specific standards; or
  2. To review all traceability requirements in the Food Standards Code; or
  3. To introduce a limit for hepatitis A virus material in semi-dried tomatoes; or
  4. To develop a Horticulture Primary Production and Processing Standard.

Option Four was seen to be the most consistent with submissions. FSANZ therefore abandoned P1012 and commenced work on a new proposal, which became FSANZ Proposal P1015.

2.            The new proposal: P1015

Following the abandonment of a product specific standard for semi dried tomatoes, FSANZ released its Proposal ‘P1015: Primary Production and Processing Standard for Horticulture’. However, similarly to the previous proposal, this was abandoned after the making of submissions – this time, in favour of non-regulatory measures.

FSANZ stated the reasons for its abandonment of P1015 included:

  • A lack of uniform support of the Standard’s development;
  • The fact that the majority of horticultural product grown in Australia is already grown under a food safety scheme; and
  • That a better understanding of those products that were not grown under a food safety scheme was required before further regulation should be considered.

A new approach proposed by FSANZ  involved collaboration between the horticulture industry and government and suggested, instead of a new Standard, measures to be developed could include “targeted guidance, codes of practice, education materials and training” – as well as better through-chain traceability measures, which were to be examined in 2014. So far as we are aware, this did not occur or did not receive any publicity if it did occur in 2014.

3.            CSIRO report

In relation to FSANZ’s first proposal, P1012, the Victorian Department of Health had commissioned an expert report to be conducted by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). This CSIRO report was titled “Semi dried tomatoes and hepatitis A virus” (December 2009).

This report examined the then state of knowledge for controlling food-borne viruses in horticulture products and made recommendations for preventing a similar outbreak from occurring.

The CSIRO report noted that:

There are no straightforward means for eliminating Hepatitis A virus (HAV) on fresh produce and protection against viral contamination will rely on implementation and adherence to controls which prevent contamination.

Ironically, the CSIRO report highlighted risk factors which suggested that transmission through a frozen berry product would be higher risk. This report included a statement that the “Hepatitis A virus is more resistant to inactivation on products with rougher surfaces – such as raspberries, blackberries and strawberries – than those with smooth surfaces”.

While the report was focused on specific measures for semi-dried tomatoes, some recommendations were more generally applicable. This included a recommendation that in order to have the biggest impact against such an outbreak, there needed to be a focus on agricultural and manufacturing practices to ensure human faecal contamination of products does not occur.

Recommendations were also made for future strategies for managing contamination of hepatitis A virus, including the establishment of a certified testing facility for hepatitis A virus in Australia.

In this latest outbreak, there have been delays in the testing of the suspect foods because of the need to use specialist laboratory testing outside Australia. Query therefore whether the CSIRO recommendations for improving Australian-based testing capabilities were pursued. It seems not.

There was no mention of controls for imported foods in the CSIRO report, but this subject would have been outside the terms of reference for the report to the Victorian Department of Health. In any event, Country of Origin labelling would not prevent any contaminated imports.

4.            Summary

It appears that little has been done to improve the situation for preventing an outbreak of food-borne Hepatitis A in foods in Australia in the period from the last major outbreak, which occurred in 2009, until the latest outbreak in 2015.