Frozen berry health scare puts heat on Big Food

A frozen berry Hepatitis A scare raises questions about global supply chains and consumer awareness.
Zac Alstin | Feb 22 2015 | comment  



Frozen Berries (Image: ABC)

Australia’s leading branded frozen food company has recently recalled a number of products from its range of frozen berries, after an outbreak of Hepatitis A was linked to berries washed and packaged in Shandong province, China.

Having finished off a bag of frozen berries a week before the recall was made public, this contamination hits a little close to home. Not only does it raise questions about food supply and security, it reveals some of the complex relationship between producers and consumers generally, a relationship not exactly characterised by complete transparency.

Where is our food coming from?

Though we’re told to ‘buy local’ we don’t always make the effort to learn where our food is coming from.  As the CEO of Patties Food – the owner of both the Nanna’s and Creative Gourmet brands – argues:

“Australian manufacturers and growers cannot meet the demand for frozen berries, with products instead sourced from countries like Vietnam, Turkey, Peru, Chile, and China.” 

If the choice is between relatively cheap, imported, potentially risky frozen berries and expensive, seasonal, local produce, perhaps this is one instance where consumers will have to accept the risk or simply forego this pleasure?

Most of us aren’t used to thinking this way – it flies in the face of technology, progress, and governmental oversight to think that we can’t get the Chinese to guarantee the safety of their food exports.  Why should we have to accept such limitations? 

We’re told that knowledge is power and that we ought as consumers to make informed choices, but this incident just highlights how poorly we adopt our responsibility, and how ready the food industry is to encourage us in a state of ignorance. 

Aside from the revelation that the frozen berries may be contaminated with faeces, it emerged that the two brands being recalled are owned by the same company, sourced from the same suppliers, and processed in the same factories. While “Nanna’s” invokes images of my grandmother’s home-made pies and traditional cooking, “Creative Gourmet” is supposed to appeal to the quality-conscious, the budding foodie, or anyone with aspirations to ‘cuisine’.  Yet take away the packaging and they are the same product.

What this does is give us the illusion of choice.  Presenting the same product under two different guises lets us feel like we are exercising our autonomy, discriminating, making meaningful decisions, even as the truly meaningful decisions are being made on economic bases in favour of off-shore processing.  As The Australian reported:

“The relocation to China promised large savings for Patties Foods, with the chairman telling shareholders the full benefits of the offshore move would be ­realised in fiscal 2015.”       

We know enough to be cynical in theory about big business, but in practice we still depend on trusted brands, especially when they are Australian owned with a proud history. But to remain uninformed about the methods, sources, and marketing decisions behind the foods we consume is to delegate our responsibilities as consumers to people and companies that are ultimately motivated by market share.

Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com



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