New Zealand issues hepatitis A warning for frozen berries after illnesses

New Zealand Food Safety has warned of the risks of hepatitis A in frozen berries following several recent illnesses.

Three cases of hepatitis A have been reported to the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) by the Ministry of Health. Patients regularly consume imported berries and are related through virus genotyping.

Hepatitis A is relatively rare in the country, said Vincent Arbuckle, New Zealand’s deputy director general for food safety.

“Although there is not enough information on a specific brand to initiate a targeted recall of the product, evidence from cases and from international trials indicates a risk of exposure to hepatitis A as a result of consuming imported frozen berries,” he said.

“As we head towards the summer months when more frozen berries will be consumed, we considered it appropriate to remind consumers of these simple precautions. This is especially the case for vulnerable communities for which the consequences of hepatitis A infection can be serious.”

Advice for boiling frozen berries
New Zealand Food Safety advises people who eat frozen berries to take precautions, especially if they are pregnant, elderly, or have chronic liver damage. Precautions include boiling the berries before eating them, making sure the cooking temperature exceeds 85°C (185°F) for one minute, and washing hands before eating and preparing food.

Hepatitis A virus is inactivated by heating above 85°C (185°F) for 1 minute. Washing frozen berries will not eliminate the virus. Frozen berries used to make juices and other beverages or dessert products in cafes and restaurants are subject to the same advice.

New Zealand has current hepatitis A testing requirements for imported berries. New Zealand Food Safety is also notifying suppliers of frozen berries to make sure they are aware of the potential risks of hepatitis A and that they are managing the problem.

Arbuckle said the imported berries are subject to a sampling system before they are put up for sale.

“However, we will never be able to completely eliminate any food safety risks from food items for sale. That is why we encourage consumers to consider additional precautions at home.”

“Consumer safety is our number one priority, and we will continue to monitor the situation with this in mind. If we identify any evidence of a broader risk, we will assess and take appropriate action, including product recalls.”

The period from infection with hepatitis A virus to illness can range from two to seven weeks, and symptoms usually last less than two months.

Hepatitis A is spread when a person ingests the virus through close contact with an infected person or by eating contaminated food or drinks. Symptoms include hepatitis, fever, decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pain, and yellowing of the whites of the eyes and skin (jaundice).

Salmonella and Vibrio disease outbreak
More details were also revealed about the outbreak of Salmonella Kintambo in July this year. It included three patients who took sesame-based products from Syria. Two people were taken to the hospital.

Sequencing of the clinical isolates showed that the cases were genetically closely related to each other and had the same type of sequence identified in an ongoing European outbreak associated with the same type of product. New Zealand food safety tests found Salmonella Kintambo, Salmonella Amsterdam and Salmonella Orion.

One acute respiratory infection was also reported in July, bringing the total since November 2021 to 67. The outbreak has been linked to the consumption of oysters, mussels, oysters, fish and eucalyptus.

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