Tasmanian berry farmers also saw the opportunity to enter the frozen market. (Landline: Fiona Breen)
Two of Australia’s berry growing families are going head-to-head in the marketplace against imported frozen berries, after a hepatitis A food scare prompted the second national recall of berries grown and processed overseas in as many years.
“We’d been toying with the idea of frozen berries for many years … when the hep A scare came out it became at the forefront of peoples minds and all of a sudden there was the opportunity,” grower Matt Gallace said.
The Gallace family started investing in new state of the art freezing machinery two years ago when 25 people contracted the hepatitis A virus after eating Nanna’s frozen fruit, which was grown and packed overseas.
The Gallace family started investing in freezing machinery soon after the hepatitis A scare. (Landline: Fiona Breen )
“The thing with overseas grown fruit is there is no traceability no accountability … there’s different practices and standards all around the world,” Ruth Gallace said.
“The way the labelling laws are in Australia you can’t be confident about the origin of what you’re buying.”
That means fruit could be grown in one country and packed in another.
The strawberries at the Gallace’s farms are all handpicked and graded, before being washed and individually snap frozen.
It is the washing that this family believes sets its berries apart from the overseas-processed fruit.
“They come in from the field as whole fruit, we hull them they are still whole fruit, they come through the washer it goes through the blast freezer down to -60C … there’s not a lot of time in between picking and blast freezing and it ensures that you get a product that is uncompromised,” Mr Gallace said.
The family has negotiated a trial with one of the big supermarkets to supply their frozen berries to 20 stores across Victoria.
The big question is whether will customers pay more for locally grown, locally processed frozen berries?
“I think that people are more informed and concerned about the origins of their food these days for a whole host of reasons, food safety being one,” Ms Gallace said.
“There’s so many reasons to buy Australian and we have found that we have a really loyal customer that has either gone off frozen fruit completely and they’ve returned to the category or of course have switched over.”
Tasmanian berry farmers the Clark family are also targeting the Australian frozen fruit market with a locally grown and processed product.
Their raspberries and blackcurrants are grown on old hop fields at Westerway in the Derwent Valley, north-west of Hobart.
The move into frozen goods started with a very timely trial run a couple of years ago.
“We froze 3,000 or 4,000 packs just on a hunch the year before the problem with imported frozen berries, those berries hit the shelves the moment after the outbreak had happened and they were snapped up almost immediately,” said third-generation grower Richard Clark.
Since then the family has built a high-tech freezing facility on its farm.
“We’ve got a state-of-the-art liquid nitrogen tunnel … the benefit of using liquid nitrogen as opposed to conventional freezing is the speed at which those berries are frozen and by freezing very quickly you get very limited crystallisation forming inside the berry.”
“When those berries thaw out, they are not too dissimilar to when they go in — they don’t go soft and mushy and they retain a lot of their flavour,” Mr Clark said.
Both berry-growing families believe the most recent scare linking Creative Gourmet’s Chinese-grown-and-processed berries and a handful of hepatitis A cases adds to the case for buying locally grown product.
In the end it will the supermarkets and the consumers that will dictate whether Australia’s emerging frozen berry ranges will survive against the cut-price versions coming from overseas.
“We can’t compete on a purely price basis but we can compete on value,” Mr Clark said.
“I think Australians will think of the value of buying Australian product and the surety and the knowledge of where that product came from.”