New Zealand Food Safety has warned about the risk of hepatitis A in frozen berries after several recent illnesses.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) was informed by the Ministry of Health of three cases of hepatitis A. Patients regularly consumed imported berries and are linked through virus genotyping.

Vincent Arbuckle, New Zealand Food Safety deputy director-general, said hepatitis A is relatively rare in the country.

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

“Given we are moving towards the summer months where more frozen berries will be consumed, we considered it appropriate to remind consumers of these simple precautions. This is particularly the case for vulnerable communities for whom the consequences of becoming infected with the hepatitis A virus can be serious.”

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

Hepatitis A virus is inactivated by heating to above 85 degrees C (185 degrees F) for one minute. Washing frozen berries will not destroy the virus. Frozen berries used to make smoothies and other drink or dessert products in cafes and restaurants are subject to the same advice.

New Zealand has existing hepatitis A testing requirements for imported berries. New Zealand Food Safety is also informing frozen berry suppliers to ensure they are aware of the potential risk of hepatitis A and are managing the issue.

Imported berries are subject to a sampling regime before release for sale, said Arbuckle.

“However, we will never be able to completely eliminate any food safety risk from food for sale. That’s why we encourage consumers to consider extra precautions at home,” he said.

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

The time from being infected with the hepatitis A virus to becoming ill can range from two to seven weeks and symptoms usually last less than two months.

Hepatitis A is spread when someone ingests the virus through close contact with an infected person or by having contaminated food or drinks. Symptoms include inflammation of the liver, fever, low appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches, and yellowing in the whites of the eyes and the skin (jaundice).

Salmonella and vibrio outbreaks
More details have also been released about an outbreak of Salmonella Kintambo in July this year. It involved three patients who had consumed sesame-based products from Syria. Two people were hospitalized.

Sequencing of clinical isolates showed cases were closely genetically related to each other and had the same sequence type identified in an ongoing European outbreak linked to the same type of products. New Zealand Food Safety product testing found Salmonella Kintambo, Salmonella Amsterdam and Salmonella Orion.

There was also one Vibrio parahaemolyticus infection reported in July, bringing the total since November 2021 to 67 cases. The outbreak has been associated with consumption of oysters, mussels, shellfish, fish and kina.

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