The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has advised consumers to continue to boil all imported frozen berries for at least one minute prior to consumption. The FSAI stated that it is re-enforcing this advice which was originally provided last year when a food poisoning outbreak of hepatitis A virus linked to imported frozen berries was first identified in Ireland and subsequently transpired to be a multi-state European outbreak. It is renewing its advice today following the publication of a report into the European-wide investigation into the outbreak which has concluded that contaminated frozen berries could still be circulating in the food chain. Also this month, a few Irish cases of hepatitis A have been reported to the FSAI which cannot be explained by travel abroad and investigations are underway to establish if there may be a link with contaminated imported frozen berries or other foods.
The European-wide trace-back investigation, which the FSAI was part of, was coordinated by the European Food Safety Authority. The outbreak was first identified in May 2013, when Germany reported cases with a travel history to Italy and Italy identified a national increase in the number of hepatitis A cases. To date 1,440 cases have been reported in twelve European countries, 331 of which have been confirmed by genotyping. The majority of cases were reported in Italy. Twenty five cases were reported in Ireland, 21 of which were confirmed.
Hepatitis A contamination of mixed berries and mixed berry containing products was identified in three countries, Italy, France and Norway. Following the European-wide trace-back investigation, Bulgarian blackberries and Polish redcurrants have been identified as the most common ingredient in the food consumed by affected people, however, Poland is the largest producer of redcurrants in Europe, and Bulgaria is a major exporter of frozen blackberries. No single point source of contamination has been identified; however, twelve food operators have been identified with links to cases and batches in five of the countries affected.
Prof. Alan Reilly, Chief Executive, FSAI states: “The first indications of the outbreak emerged last year when cases of hepatitis A were identified to have the same strain of the virus as that causing an outbreak in Italy. As contaminated imported frozen berries could still be circulating in the food chain, we continue to recommend the boiling of imported frozen berries for at least one minute before eating them. This is a precautionary measure and will destroy the virus if it is present. There is no evidence that fresh Irish berries were the cause of the outbreak. However, we suggest that – as with all other fruit and vegetables – fresh berries should be washed thoroughly if they are being eaten uncooked.”
Frozen imported berries are widely used in the food industry and distributed into the food service sector for use in cooked and ready-to-eat dishes. Therefore, food businesses using frozen imported berries need to ensure that the berries they use are sourced from reputable suppliers operating effective food safety management systems and comprehensive traceability systems.
Prof. Reilly states: “This outbreak highlights just how complex the food chain can be. No single point source of contamination has been identified, despite the trace-back investigations which looked at 6,227 transactions among 1,974 food businesses. We reiterate our recommendation that food businesses at each stage of the food chain seek assurances regarding the effectiveness of the food safety management systems in place from their suppliers. If such assurances are not available, the imported berries should be boiled for one minute before being used in foods to eliminate or reduce the risk from foodborne viruses and bacteria.”