health

What do you get for $9 a kilo? Poo berries. And Hepatitis.

The truth behind the frozen berries Hep A outbreak is more disgusting than we thought.

“Don’t drink the water.”

And the second?

“Don’t eat cut fruit.”

Yet, right now, sitting in my freezer is a packet of cut and frozen mangos – a product of Vietnam. I’ve been putting them in my smoothie every morning. So far, nothing bad has happened. But others aren’t so lucky. There have been at least 13 cases of Hepatitis A linked to packets of frozen berries in the past week. School children in South Australia and Victoria have been exposed to the contaminated products, and, because the disease takes up to seven weeks to show symptoms, there are likely to be more cases.

“There have been at least 13 cases of Hepatitis A linked to packets frozen berries in the past week.”

The irony that most of the people eating the frozen berries were doing so to stay healthy would be delicious, if the reality wasn’t so disgusting. The way in which many of the berries were used – uncooked, straight from the packet, in smoothies – made the chance of infection even worse.

Where were these berries grown? China. A country where the first thing people tell you (people who don’t work for the Chinese government, at least) is “Don’t drink the water.”

Read more: Nanna’s has pulled a fourth product from shelves, as 9 hepatitis A cases are confirmed.

Another thing that you might not hear about China, but that you should probably know is that they’ve been using a fertiliser called ‘Night Soil’ for several hundred years. What is ‘night soil’? It’s solid human waste. Yep, poo.

When night soil is treated properly it can be safe. But in a country where making a fuss can land you in prison, where giant pools of stinking foam occasionally rise from the ground with no explanation, and where 300,000 people in Shanghai alone were once stricken with Hepatitis A in one outbreak – do you really trust that the waste has been treated properly?

What is ‘night soil’? It’s solid human waste.

Even if the berries weren’t grown in night soil – and there’s no evidence that they were – how can you be expected to wash berries to an acceptable standard when half the country’s drinking water is, well, undrinkable?

Australia’s outbreak isn’t the first of its kind. The United States and Europe have both suffered similarly at the hands of frozen berries.

But, hopefully, this outbreak can be the last of its kind in Australia. Because hopefully, this outbreak will serve as a wakeup call.

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Read more: “Wake up Australia. How many more people have to get sick?” One woman’s desperate plea.

Of course, our government doesn’t seem all that interested in protecting Australians from further outbreak. Tony Abbott has called better labelling of foreign foods, and better testing a “balancing act”. He’s also said it’s up to businesses “not to poison their customers”, a kind of laissez faire approach I find almost as unpalatable as Nanna’s Frozen Mixed Berries.

As more free trade agreements are signed, that make outbreaks like this more likely, unfortunately, we’ll just have to look after ourselves. Australia has some of the highest safety standards for farming in the world, so looking for locally grown produce is a good start when it comes to protecting your health.

When I first saw a kilo of frozen raspberries in the supermarket for $9, I was overjoyed. The price seemed to good to be true. Now, it’s apparent that it was too good to be true. But it’s hard to see that at the time, because our supermarket shopping system has trained us to think that it’s reasonable to get anything you want, at any time of year, for a good price.

“The new rule of fruit and veggies is this: Safe, Unseasonal, Cheap – you can only pick two.”

It’s not reasonable. It’s crazy. It’s bad for the planet and it’s making us sick. The new rule of fruit and veggies is this: Safe, Unseasonal, Cheap – you can only pick two.

Sure, you can get figs flown in from Umbria in the middle of July, but it’s going to cost you a mint. Or you can get nashi pears and mandarins grown in Australia for a few dollars a kilo and eat your little heart out. But you cannot get cut-price pre-packaged berries from China and expect your tummy to thank you for it.

Read more: Australian radio star is concerned she may have Hepatitis A from frozen berries.

We ate just fine before the days of $9 frozen berries, and once we realise shopping any way but locally and seasonally is costlier than it’s worth in more ways than one, we’ll eat just fine again.

But next time you’re tucking into your safe, seasonal Queensland bananas, spare a thought for the people who live in the countries where you can’t drink the water. Hepatitis A outbreaks aren’t news stories for them, they’re normal life. Australians have been failed by this outbreak. We have a right to be angry. Still, the fact that there are billions of people in this world without access to safe food is the most galling thing of all.