Updated, June 12, 11:22 a.m.: The outbreak of hepatitis A linked to a frozen berry mix sold at Costco has grown to 99 people with illnesses in eight states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The outbreak has also spawned more lawsuits, including cases filed against food processor Townsend Farms in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho and Washington state, according to Seattle-based food safety lawyer Bill Marler. The class-action lawsuits ask for compensation for medical treatment and reimbursement for vaccines for as many as 75,000 people who were potentially exposed to the virus. In addition, Marler is representing 33 people who were sickened. “There are some pretty significantly injured people,” Marler says, including a man who was recovering from triple bypass surgery who nearly required a liver transplant after contracting hepatitis A. “People don't understand how difficult hepatitis A can be,” he adds. “Some people who get sick, even in a 'mild' case, can be ill for six to eight weeks.”
The outbreak “shows the risk of a long manufacturing tail,” Marler says. “The longer the manufacturing tail, the more likely a mistake can get made. Once a bacteria or virus enters into a food item that's not meant to be cooked, you have a really big problem, especially when you are talking mass production. One mistake and you don't sicken a family, you sicken thousands of people. It just shows how vulnerable the food supply is to one viral agent in one component part.” Marler says he expects the number of infections to reach about 300.
The Food and Drug Administration is continuing to investigate the cause of the outbreak.
Previously published, June 6, 1:48 p.m.: A 51-year-old Lakewood woman has sued Costco and Townsend Farms after she contracted hepatitis A after eating an organic berry mix.
So far 61 people in seven states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah) have been sickened by the berry blend. Eleven of them, including Lynda Brackenridge, who is suing, have landed in the hospital. Sixty-six percent of those infected are women. Ages range from 2 to 71 years old.
“It's very scary that this could happen to anyone,” she told KABC from her quarantined room at Long Beach Memorial Hospital, where she really doesn't look so good.
Brackenridge began experiencing aches, fatigue and chills on May 22, after she ate frozen Organic Antioxidant Blend berries packaged by Townsend Farms in Oregon and sold by Costco, according to her civil complaint.
Next, her urine became dark, her skin and eyes yellowed and she began to vomit and dry heave, according to the complaint. Tests showed she had contracted hepatitis A.
After originally leaving the berries on the market, Townsend Farms finally recalled them on June 4, “out of an abundance of caution.” (Really? The berries have tested positive for hepatits A in two states — that's hardly using “an abundance of caution.”) Costco had already pulled them from shelves last Friday and notified customers who had bought them since February 2013.
The dirty berry blend came in three-pound bags with the UPC code 0 78414 404448, according to the Food and Drug Administration. The recalled codes are located on the back of the package with the words “BEST BY” followed by the code T012415 sequentially through T053115, followed by a letter.
The particular strain of hepatitis A found in the berry mix is rarely seen in the United States and is most common in North Africa and the Middle East, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Pomegranate seeds from Turkey appear to be the culprit. The seeds “may be linked to an illness outbreak outside of the United States,” according to the FDA. The fruit came from four countries in all: Argentina, Chile, Turkey and the United States.
The same genotype of hepatitis was identified in an outbreak earlier this year in Europe linked to frozen berries and another 2012 outbreak in British Columbia related to a frozen berry blend with pomegranate seeds from Egypt, according to the CDC. The exact strain in the current outbreak does not match the European or Canadian outbreaks, however.
Hepatitis A is a viral disease and usually occurs when an infected food handler prepares food without appropriate hand hygiene (you know what that means). It can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious illness lasting several months, according to the FDA.
The agency adds that people who ate the berry blend within the last two weeks should consult with their doctor to determine if a vaccination is appropriate, “and consumers with symptoms of hepatitis A should contact their healthcare professionals or the local health department immediately.” And, if you have the berries in your freezer, don't eat them, it says. Well duh.
If you'd like to talk to someone at Townsend Farms about their overly cautious food safety protocols, call or email: 1-800-875-5291; firstname.lastname@example.org, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. PDT.
Tell them you don't like your berries that organic.
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