Semi-dried tomatoes could be behind the surge in hepatitis A cases in some Australian states, say health authorities. A national food contamination alert has been issued now.
Following the spike state governments of Queensland, Victoria and South Australia since have warned consumers not to eat semi-dried tomatoes purchased loose and unpackaged from supermarkets, independent stores and cafes.
South Australian wholesaler Siena Foods was yesterday recalling its semi-dried tomatoes in oil with garlic and herbs from stores.
Hepatitis A (formerly known as infectious hepatitis
) is an acute infectious disease of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV), which is most commonly transmitted by the fecal-oral route via contaminated food or drinking water. Every year, approximately 10 million people worldwide are infected with the virus.
South Australian public health director Kevin Buckett yesterday said 26 people in South Australia had contracted hepatitis A during the past two months, a significant spike given there had been only 19cases last year and five in 2007.
More than 70 people in Victoria had contracted hepatitis A during the same period, he said. Victoria's Human Services Department yesterday said the number of cases this year was more than double that at the same time last year.
SA Health epidemiologists and food investigators this month linked the increase of hepatitis A cases in the three states to the contamination of the Siena product, which is packaged in Victoria and possibly Queensland.
"Investigations are continuing and the advice we are getting from epidemiology is the outbreak is ongoing," Dr Buckett said yesterday. "A national incident response process has been triggered."
Michael Mercuri, a spokesman for the family-owned Siena Foods, said it received its product from interstate suppliers and sold it direct to retailers, including Foodland supermarkets. "We are just the middle man," he said.
Acting South Australian Health Minister Jane Lomax-Smith said the SA Health scientists had identified the hepatitis A spike sooner than it was recognised in other parts of the country. "They've done a brilliant job in recognising the cause and how it occurred," she said.
"They have worked very closely with officers in other states to make sure there can be a co-ordinated response to this spike in infection, and I am very confident the matter will be brought under control."
Victoria's acting Chief Health Officer Rosemary Lester yesterday said the states were being cautious.
Hepatitis A is spread when traces of fecal matter containing the virus contaminate hands, objects, water or food and are then taken in orally. Symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, fever, chills and jaundice.
Ms Lester said the links between the semi-dried tomatoes product and a recent increase in hepatitis A in Victoria were still under investigation, Australian reported.
"In the interest of public health, we are therefore advising people not to purchase or consume loose semi-dried tomatoes, in oil with herbs and garlic, from stores," she said. "If you have these products at home, you should throw them out.
"We are also working with the Victorian manufacturers to remove this product from these stores across Victoria."
Queensland Health acting Chief Health Officer Aaron Groves said the state was investigating the possible contamination. He said 10 cases of hepatitis A had been reported in Queensland since April.