Consumers who bought bags of frozen berries linked to a health scare will be able to get a refund from major supermarkets, as MPI tightens controls at the border, adding frozen fruit to its list of high-risk imported food products.
Fruzio Mixed Berries was last night identified by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) as a potential source of the Hepatitis A contamination scare. The mix of blackberries and strawberries comes in 500g and 1kg bags, with berries imported from China.
The product has been recalled, and anyone with Fruzio Mixed Berries in their freezer is advised to throw them out.
However, supermarket giant Foodstuffs - which owns Pak'nSave and New World - said today it will offer refunds to customers who return the product to their stores.
"Should customers wish to receive a refund, our advice is to take the product back to the store it was purchased from and they will arrange a full refund," a spokeswoman said.
Countdown does not stock Fruzio berries, a spokeswoman said.
It comes as MPI and FSL Foods, which owns Fruzio, confirmed the Hepatitis A strain which has struck four people in New Zealand is the same strain which sparked a Hepatitis A scare in Australian berries earlier this year.
The strain, which originates in Asia, was linked to Nanna's berries in Australia in March, where at least 26 people fell ill with the disease.
Mike Glover, FSL Foods owner, said DNA testing had been done on the Hepatitis A strain found in the New Zealand patients, who had all eaten Fruzio Mixed Berries in the last 50 days.
"So what they've been able to identify is that Shandong and Jiangsu province is where the fruit came from, and those are the same provinces that the fruit came from in the Australia scare," he said, and where FSL Foods imports its berries from.
However, Mr Glover said he still had confidence in the region.
"All the facilities that we use, all of them are independently certified in food safety to the highest international standards, they supply all countries in the world, they supply the largest of the food processing and frozen fruit distributors in the world," Mr Glover said.
"Our product has been tested for Hep A, both on a random basis and a direct basis, our product is always tested for E. coli.
"If you asked me, having had less than 24 hours to think about this, would I change anything in the supply chain, I can tell you no."
Peter Thomson, director plants, food and environment at MPI, also confirmed the Hep A strain in New Zealand patients was the same as the one found in Australian berries.
"It doesn't mean it was the same contamination event. Multiple people could be carrying the same strain on different parts of supply chains. We haven't been able to nail that down yet, we're still working with Australia to look at what supply chain information they might have, to see if we can be more accurate."
The supply chain for frozen berries was "a really complex picture", Mr Thomson said.
"There are quite a number of participants in that supply chain, here in New Zealand and offshore," he said.
"We don't know at which point in that supply chain the contamination event occurred, other than because the berries are packed offshore we know that it must have happened before they were packed."
Mr Thomson denied MPI had been slow to react to the frozen berry scare, saying he was "amazed we've been able to nail this down so fast".
"Having only had four Hep A cases and being able to link those together to a single food source of frozen imported berries on Monday, and then to be recalling a specific brand of product yesterday, I think we've done incredibly well."
He has not ruled out further recalls as the investigation continues.
"It would be a bit irresponsible if we just stopped now and had a whole lot of unanswered questions that could be presenting risk."
MPI did not have fears over imported fruit and vegetables following the scare, Mr Thomson said.
"We've got a very good food safety system. Importers understand their responsibility to ensure that any food they do supply from overseas meets food safety standards," he said.
This was "evidenced by the infrequent nature of these kinds of events", he said.
However, the scare has prompted MPI to tighten restrictions on food imports.
"We've added frozen berries to the list of prescribed foods at the border that require testing, so that will be another level of assurance for the New Zealand public," he said.
As frozen berry products come through the border, they will "all be tested and cleared by a food safety officer", who will be testing for E. coli, which is an indicator of Hep A.
Mr Glover said FSL Foods was working hard to recall bags of the mixed berries, and he had taken the scare personally.
"I think I've been quoted as 'devastated' -- I can't think of words that can even get close to people understanding that I feel as though I've let a lot of people down, because we're a small family business."
Other Fruzio frozen fruit products were not affected, he said, and he had yet to decide whether to ditch his supplier in China.
"At this stage we're managing the recall, so we are totally focussed on getting the product that's recalled out of the stores. We haven't even thought past that process, we haven't even thought about buying more fruit at the moment, the issues of supply have not come into our mind.
"What we do know is we're going to stay on the market as a brand, and we will do as much as we can to allay people's fears about the quality of our product."
He praised his "great staff" and "amazing team", and the customers who had been "generally understanding ... quite possibly even supportive".
The Ministry of Health said it did not hold information on the distribution of the Hepatitis A vaccine, so could not say whether the scare had prompted people to seek the jab.
The disease was "rare" in New Zealand, Dr Stewart Jessamine, acting director of public health, at the Ministry, said, and "the risk of transmission of Hepatitis A from consumption of frozen berries is low".
"Only a very small proportion of people who have consumed the potentially contaminated berries have become ill," he said.
"If you have eaten Fruzio -- or any other brand of frozen berries -- and you are otherwise well, you do not need to seek advice from a healthcare practitioner or consider vaccination against Hepatitis A."
However, those more at risk of developing symptoms -- such as the elderly, or anyone with chronic liver disease -- may want to talk to their doctor if they've eaten frozen berries in the last 50 days, he said.
"Anyone who has become unwell within 50 days of eating frozen berries should advise their doctor of what they've eaten, as testing for Hepatitis A may be necessary."
A spokeswoman for Food Safety Minister Jo Goodhew, referred questions to MPI.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
• Fruzio Mixed Berries has been identified as the source of imported frozen berries linked to a Hepatitis A scare.
• The infected berries are sold in 1kg and 500g bags, and contain blackberries and strawberries.
• The bags are being recalled, but it is not yet known exactly which batch could be infected.
• If you have this product at home, you're advised to bin it.
• Further recalls can't be ruled out at this stage, so MPI has issued some food safety guidelines:
• Consumers are advised to wash their hands before eating and preparing food.
• Imported frozen berries should be briefly boiled before eating, or ensure cooking exceeds 85C for one minute.
• Elderly people, and those with chronic liver damage, should avoid imported frozen berries that have not been heat treated.
• If you are concerned about a potential risk to your health, or the health of others, you should seek advice from your medical practitioner, or call the Ministry of Health's Healthline: 0800 61 11 16.
• If you are concerned about the safety of food products, contact the MPI consumer helpline on 0800 00 83 33.
WHAT IS HEPATITIS A?:
• The Hepatitis A virus is a waterborne and food borne liver infection for which a vaccine is available.
The disease is spread through contact with faeces of an infected person, such as through failure of an infected food handler to wash their hands properly after using the toilet. After consuming the virus it can take 15 to 50 days for symptoms to appear.
• loss of appetite;
• dark urine;
• abdominal pain.
• For more information visit the Ministry of Health website.