Growing need: Matt and Ruth Gullace at their Mornington Peninsula berry farm. Photo: Penny StephensAfter an outbreak of hepatitis A linked to frozen berries from China, Australians may soon be able to buy local berries. But they will have to pay a premium.
With 27 cases of hepatitis A linked to a recent consumer recall of Nanna’s and Creative Gourmet frozen berries, Mornington Peninsula berry farmers Matt and Ruth Gullace have launched a local product under a new brand, Matilda’s.
The Victorian Farmers Federation says the Victorian farmers would be the first to put wholly Australian-grown berries onto consumer shelves.
While the Gallaces’ Sunny Ridge frozen strawberries are currently available only at their farm gate shop at Main Ridge, they are negotiating with Coles and Woolworths to have their products on supermarket shelves by June.
Mr Gallace said after the hepatitis health scare, the company believes the Australian market is ready for locally grown and packed products.
He said consumers could pay $2 to to $2.50 more per 500g bag than for overseas berries, making the product about $7 per pack.
“It is still early days but we have done our market research and most people are willing to pay that small premium to get that quality,” Mr Gallace said.
He said Patties Foods, the company that distributed the suspect frozen berries, had about 40 per cent of the frozen berry market before the health outbreak and it had left a vacuum in the market.
“There is certainly scope there and there always has to be choice,” Mr Gallace said.
“We have spoken to [Coles and Woolworths] before but now they actually return our phone calls … They are talking about volume expectations, so we are pretty confident,” he said.
Mr Gallace said the company had made a small investment in equipment to freeze its berries but that most of the work was labor intensive, involving hand-hulling and sorting.
He said if the market continued for locally grown frozen berries, an investment of about $2 million would be needed for an automated system.
Mr Gallace said he expected to sell about 800 tonnes of frozen berries a year, about 20 per cent of Sunny Ridge’s yield from its four farms – three in Victoria and one in Queensland. He said they would look to other growers if demand exceeded supply.
Victorian Farmers Federation president Peter Tuohey said the hepatitis health scare plus a drop in the Australian dollar made the time right for Australian competition in the market.
He said Australian-grown produce was safe because of its quality assurance standards, its high-quality water for irrigation and cleaning, and because of the health standards of its workers.
“People still buy on price,” Mr Tuohey said. “Australian food is at a premium to imported product, but shoppers generally – quite often – buy on price, but they need to buy on quality and safety more than on price. That has been the main hurdle,” he said.
“[Food producers] here have to do everything right all along the supply chain. I’m sure they are trying to do that in China but there are some gaps there,” he said.
He said supermarkets tested about 5 per cent of the imported frozen product that they sold, but this did not pick up every problem.
There are 12 hepatitis A cases in Queensland linked to the recalled frozen berries, three in Victoria, eight in NSW, two in Western Australia, and one in South Australia and the ACT.
A federal Health Department spokeswoman said only the Nanna’s Mixed Berries product has been epidemiologically linked with the outbreak. The other products have been recalled as a precaution.
Anyone who has eaten the recalled frozen berries and feels unwell should consult their GP.
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