The Hepatitis berry scare

The normally strong standards of Australia’s food safety have been breached recently with the outbreak of Hepatitis A cases linked to particular brands of frozen berries. While only a small number of cases of the disease have been confirmed, there is still some risk that more may yet contract it, given the widespread use of the product across the country.

The contamination seems to be limited to two particular brands, which have now been recalled from stores, so the first thing to do is to check if you have the offending product in your freezer:

• Nanna’s Raspberries 1kg packs, with best before dates until 15/09/16

• Nanna’s Mixed Berries 1kg packs, with best before dates until 22/11/16

• Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries 300g, with best before dates until 10/12/17

• Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries 500g, with best before dates until 06/10/17

How serious is Hepatitis A?
Thankfully there are only a tiny fraction of cases which develop serious complications, such as liver failure. The vast majority of sufferers will only have superficial effects, such as cause vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea, loss of appetite and jaundice. Some people who contract the disease may not show any symptoms at all and may not ever know that they have it.

There are generally no chronic effects from the disease and after you recover from the unpleasant effects your body then develops its own immunity to future infection.

What to do if you think you might be at risk
If you think you may have already consumed any of the potentially risky products mentioned above, you may be able to head off a possible infection by vaccinating. Hepatitis A has an incubation period of between two and seven weeks, so if you act quickly the vaccine can be effective in preventing the disease from manifesting.

The only exception to the vaccination option is pregnant women, so if you have concerns or want to explore vaccination the best idea is to consult your GP.

Hepatitis A can potentially be transmitted through blood products, so anyone who has consumed the recalled berries should avoid giving blood and if they have already given blood recently they should report it to the Red Cross. Having said that, there are no historical incidences of infection occurring via blood borne transmission. More information is available from the Red Cross

A timely wakeup call on food safety
Of course Hepatitis A is not the only food borne infection. Bacterial infections that can cause food poisoning include Salmonella, Campylobacter, E.coli and Listeria, while viral causes include Norovirus and Rotavirus. The recent Hepatitis outbreak is a timely reminder about how easily contamination can occur if we are not vigilant in the home kitchen.

Foods that are more susceptible to bacterial infection include meat, dairy products, eggs, smallgoods, seafood, cooked rice, cooked pasta and salads. Fortunately, a few simple rules are very effective at safeguarding us from being struck by one of the nasties.

Refrigeration
Proper refrigeration practices are an important first step. Keep the fridge below 5 degrees Celsius and never let food linger out of the fridge if it is meant to be kept cold. A rule of thumb is if something has been out of refrigeration for more than 2 hours it should be disposed of. Defrost and marinating should also be done in the fridge for the same reason.

Cleanliness
Washing hands and cleaning down food preparation areas is the starting point for eliminating infectious conditions. Raw meat juices are a particular concern, so it is essential to strictly keep this from coming into any contact with other foods or areas where other foods are being prepared, such as cutting boards. The barbecue is one area where this can easily occur, so be careful not to use marinating dishes to serve or store cooked meat.

Proper heating
The general rule to avoid contamination is to cook foods or reheat foods to at least 60 degrees Celsius. Meats like mince or sausages should be cooked until there is no pink, while cooked chicken should be pricked to see that juices run clear before serving. If a marinade for raw meat is being used to make a sauce, it needs to be heated to boiling.

Egg usage
Eggs can be a particularly vulnerable food if not handled properly. Obviously eggs should be checked for use by dates and any cracked or leaking eggs should be disposed of. Many recipes call for the use of raw eggs, such as mayonnaise and mousse. These should be refrigerated well and disposed of after 24 hours of being made to avoid any risks.