Food authorities in New Zealand are looking at strengthening the import requirements for frozen berries.

New Zealand Food Safety is inviting comments on proposals that include changing the imported food category of frozen berries from “increased regulatory interest (IRI)” to “high regulatory interest (HRI).”

The new rules would apply to frozen berries, including mixed frozen food containing frozen berries imported from any country ready to eat. Fruits include blackberry, blueberry, cranberry, currants, raspberry, and strawberry.

It does not cover RTE frozen berries subjected to a treatment to eliminate hazards, including norovirus and hepatitis A virus, as long as evidence of this can be provided, and RTE frozen processed food containing berries such as ice cream and frozen yogurt and desserts.

New Zealand Food Safety proposes an 18-month transition period from the date of the new notice before the current clearance requirements are phased out. Over this period, importers of frozen berries can comply with either current rules or the planned new clearance conditions.

Reasons for stricter controls
New Zealand has had import controls for frozen berries since December 2015. Work was started in 2020 to improve knowledge of microbiological food safety risks associated with frozen fruits and vegetables, including berries.

Findings from several studies supported the strengthening of risk management measures for imported frozen berries to protect public health. This view has been reinforced by a hepatitis A outbreak in 2022 and 2023 associated with imported frozen berries, which affected 39 people.

A requirement for E. coli testing of consignments of imported frozen berries was introduced in 2015. New Zealand officials plan to remove microbiological testing of shipments as a way of satisfying border clearance requirements for RTE frozen berries.

Reasons given for this include E. coli being a poor indicator of the presence of viruses, such as norovirus and hepatitis A, and that reliance solely on microbial testing of frozen berries is an ineffective way of managing the potential risk from contamination of products by pathogenic viruses and bacteria. The move will facilitate quicker clearance of consignments and eliminate costs associated with laboratory testing.

New Zealand Food Safety is proposing a new risk management approach focused on ensuring that RTE frozen berries are sourced by importers from overseas manufacturers that operate food safety management systems with procedures and processes in place to identify and control hazards in berries.

It also introduces the use of third-party certificates issued by accredited certification bodies to satisfy clearance requirements. This is consistent with Australia’s requirements for RTE berries, which allow such certificates to be used to meet border clearance demands.

More details on the plans are here, and comments can be submitted by Jan. 8, 2024.

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