Our Italian food safety friend, Luca Bucchini, provides an update on the ongoing Hepatitis A outbreak linked to frozen fruits.
An edited version is below, and something will probably be lost in translation.
In Italy, since the beginning of 2013 or shortly before, is currently the most significant outbreak associated with food seen in the western world after the German-based sprout outbreak of 2011.
The cases reported to the Italian authorities, and therefore serious enough to warrant medical attention, associated with berries are at least over 800, with a significant proportion of hospital admissions.
It is not surprising that during this epidemic the media have dealt with so little, instead devoting space to hypothetical risks, like GMOs, or of pigs brought before the Parliament.
But how is it possible that the epidemic, although slow, has not yet been stopped, and we do not know the origin (the origin is likely that there were crops irrigated with water contaminated with sewage in Eastern Europe, but do not exclude other possibilities).
At the same time, perhaps for the lack of pressure from public opinion, has definitely contributed little transparent action, slow and uncertain of the Italian authorities. Even the initial identification of the outbreak has not occurred in Italy, despite epidemiological signals of concern, but in Germany and the Netherlands, because of the tourists came back sick, in March, from holidays in Trentino.
At present, the clues on the origin of raw materials lead to Poland. From this country, according to the Italian documents, however, are arriving very little information to find a common origin. Community legislation imposes very specific: you should be able to go back to producing farms without difficulty. It is not clear, however, if the Poles have not applied the rules, or simply resisted requests for information Italian.
It was evident that the frozen berries can remain in the freezer for months or years, which are often consumed without cooking and are used without heat treatment capable of killing viruses (boiling), even for ice cream cakes, ice cream and for many other typical products of consumption in summer. The Ministry of Health has not promoted, and does not endorse, any communication; news on the site is difficult to find.
The scientific data were already clear: the only safe treatment was boiling. But consumers were given mixed messages until September, and even today few know that the official advice is to consume the products only after two minutes of boiling, then without giving any indication as to the tens of thousands of bakeries and ice cream stores. In essence, it is hoped that the problem would pass on its own. Instead, with the berries still in the freezers, the epidemic has diminished in intensity but has not yet passed.
In Italy, the ASL often do not have the aggressiveness needed for epidemiological investigation, and the central coordination is poor. It is based on the analytical findings and, when the problem is of this nature, even from a purely economic point of view it is better to eliminate a suspect lot (not confirmed) more, than letting the problem continue. We are at the point that the most prestigious supermarket chains, industry and the inability of authorities to solve the problem, they said they no longer sell this type of product.
Unfortunately, this myth of a system far superior, and food consequently always free of problems, has become a mantra repeated uncritically, even by those who should have a professional duty to respect the available data.
Lack of transparency is not conducive to the most efficient firms, and any reliable health authority has not only an obligation to act diligently to avoid unnecessary alarms, but also to worry about the economic interests of specific and general. But this search for balance, entrusted to a third party mediator between producer and buyer, it does not work for consumers, for businesses the most virtuous, and the industry continues to have – in this case – the unsolved problem.