There could be dozens more hepatitis A cases after schools use frozen berries, but government wary of stricter laws

Concern is growing over just how many people might be infected with hepatitis A after a number of schools and childcare centres began warning parents that they used the Nanna’s frozen mixed berries believed responsible for the virus outbreak.

The number of confirmed cases grew to 13 on Wednesday, with the first case in Western Australia emerging, alongside five in Queensland, four in NSW and three in Victoria.

But earlier today, prime minister Tony Abbott rejected calls for food testing and labelling, saying it was up to the the food industry “shouldn’t poison their customers”.

While industry groups such as AusVeg called for tougher screening, and the Prime Minister said they were looking into it, he was concerned about the financial cost to consumers.

“Every time we demand more regulation, every time we demand different kinds of labelling, we add the costs and the consumer has to pay. Now, I’ve got to respect consumers’ pockets; I’ve got to respect their financial health as well as other aspects of their health,” he said.

At issue is the risk assessments by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ). Will high-risk products are subject to constant testing only 5% of low-risk ones are checked. Berries are in the low-risk category.

Meanwhile, up to 14 schools and childcare centres in South Australia may have used the imported berries recalled by Patties Food, and have written to the parents of the children concerned, but South Australian education boss Jayne Johnston, said it was unclear where and how the berries were used.

“Parents will be understandably concerned to receive the letter, but I would like to emphasise that SA Health advises that the risk is considered to be quite low and the product recall was being undertaken as a precaution,” she said.

The Guardian reports that the berries were also used in a cooking class by year seven students at a Victorian high school last week. No positive tests have emerged, but the virus incubation period can last between two and seven weeks.

There are also reports that three rugby league players from West Tigers players ate the recalled berries.

Four products have now been recalled by Patties Foods: 1kg packs of Nanna’s mixed berries, with a November 16 use by date and Nanna’s raspberries 1kg packs, as well as 300g and 500g Creative Gourmet mixed berries.

And in another blow for Victoria-based Patties Foods, which has seen its share price plunge this week from $1.40 to $1.225 at close on Wednesday, the prospect of a compensation claim by class action lawyers Slater and Gordon has emerged.

“Slater and Gordon has acted for victims of many different food-contamination scares in the past, including previous cases of contamination with hepatitis A,” lawyer Julie Clayton told Australian Food News.

On its website, Patties Foods says “The link between our products and the reported illnesses has not yet been confirmed,” in response to its own question about meeting medical costs.

“This makes it too early to comment,” the company said.

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