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Hepatitis A cases tied to frozen berries climb; victims sue

This is one of three frozen berry mix products recalled by Townsend Farms of Fairview, Ore.
This is one of three frozen berry mix products recalled by Townsend Farms of Fairview, Ore.FDA

Illnesses and hospitalizations are continuing to mount in an ongoing outbreak of a rare strain of hepatitis A linked to a frozen berry blend product that includes potentially tainted pomegranate seeds processed in Turkey.

At least 49 people are sick and 11 have been hospitalized in seven states after consuming Townsend Farms Organic Anti-Oxidant Blend mix sold nationally at Costco and Harris Teeter stores, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The states include Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Hawaii, and California.

People who consumed the product can avoid illness by receiving injections of immune globulin or hepatitis A vaccine within two weeks of eating the potentially tainted product, health officials said.

Officials at Townsend Farms, of Fairview, Ore., issued a voluntary recall of certain lots of the frozen product early Tuesday, four days after CDC and Food and Drug Administration officials urged retailers and consumers to avoid it.

“At this time, hepatitis A has not been found in the product, but Townsend Farms is taking this precautionary action in consultation with the FDA as the investigation continues,” said a statement from Mike and Margaret Townsend, the firm’s president and vice president.

The fruit mix includes pomegranate seeds from Turkey, as well as other produce from the U.S., Argentina and Chile. The company is recalling 3-pound bags sold at Costco of Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend with UPC 0 78414 404448, with a BEST BUY code T012415 sequentially through T053115, followed by a letter. The company is also recalling 10-ounce bags of Harris Teeter Organic Antioxidant Berry Blend UPC 072036 70463 4, with lot codes of T041613E and T0401613C and a Best Buy code of 101614.

Costco officials have notified more than 250,000 consumers who bought the product, according to Craig Wilson, the firm’s vice president for food safety. And at least a few victims who developed hepatitis A have sued Costco and Townsend Farms in the wake of the outbreak. Harris Teeter also notified shoppers via phone calls linked to shopper loyalty cards, a spokeswoman said. 

That includes Lynda Brackenridge, 51, of Lakewood, Calif., a massage therapist who said she’s been buying the Townsend Farms frozen berry mix for five months and eating it most days with yogurt.

“I like organic mixed berries. It sounded like it was a healthy, good thing to have,” said Brackenridge, who has been hospitalized since Friday at Long Beach Memorial Hospital with acute hepatitis A infection. “It was my morning breakfast.”

Houston food safety law firm Simon & Luke, with co-counsel Gomez & Iagmin, filed a lawsuit Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Brackenridge first fell ill on May 22.

Marler Clark, a Seattle food safety law firm, planned to file lawsuits Monday and Tuesday in San Diego County Superior Court on behalf of Christine Favero, a San Diego woman who developed symptoms of hepatitis A on May 19, and a class action suit on behalf of people who had to receive hepatitis A vaccinations after eating the frozen berry mix.

Nineteen of 25 patients interviewed so far recalled eating the Townsend Farms product, CDC officials said.

Lab tests from two patients indicate that the outbreak strain of hepatitis A is genotype 1B, a strain rarely seen in the Americas but found in North Africa and the Middle East regions. The genotype was identified in a 2012 outbreak in British Columbia last year linked to a frozen berry blend made with pomegranate seeds from Egypt and in an outbreak this year in Europe tied to frozen berries, the CDC said.

Hepatitis A infections are caused by fecal transmission and typically occur when an infected food handler prepares food without appropriate hand hygiene. Food can also become contaminated with the virus, as is suspected in this outbreak.

Hepatitis A causes liver inflammation and can show up with mild to severe symptoms including fatigue, fever, abdominal pain, dark urine and jaundice. In rare cases, the infection can cause liver failure. 

“Hepatitis A won’t kill you, but it will make you feel like you want to die,” said Dr. Sharon Orrange, at Keck Medical Center and the University of Southern California. “We can prevent the illness in people who have been exposed, but they must be vaccinated in the two-week period after exposure. If received within two weeks, the vaccine is up to 90 percent effective in preventing illness.”