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CDC Reports More Hepatitis A Victims as Foodborne Illness Probe Continues

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ATLANTASixty one people suffering from acute hepatitis A infections may be tied to consumption of a frozen berry and pomegranate mix from Townsend Farms, Inc., the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) disclosed yesterday.

The number of illnesses potentially linked to the product has nearly doubled in recent days as federal authorities continue to investigate an outbreak that has been reported by 7 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

Preliminary lab studies suggest an outbreak strain of hepatitis A virus (HAV) that is rarely seen in the Americas but occurs in the Middle East and North Africa, CDC said.

No deaths have been reported to date. Based on an investigation of 30 cases, CDC reported the following.

  • More than one third of the sick people (11 individuals) have been hospitalized;
  • Twenty two, or 73% of the ill individuals interviewed, reported eating "Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend" frozen berry and pomegranate mix;
  • Two thirds of the people who have become sick are women; and
  • Victims range in age from 2 to 71.  

Twenty two people reported buying the product at Costco markets. CDC said the product also was sold at Harris Teeter stores, although no illnesses have been associated with that grocery chain. Harris Teeter mostly operates stores on the East Coast.

Craig Wilson, a Costco representative who handles quality assurance and food safety, did not immediately respond today to a request for comment on the investigation.

Earlier this week, Townsend Farms recalled certain lots of its product over the potential that it was contaminated with HAV.

Hepatitis A is a contagious liver disease and typically occurs when an infected food handler prepares food without appropriate hand hygiene. Food contaminated with HAV can cause incidents of disease among persons who eat or handle it. That is what CDC suspects happened in the current outbreak under investigation.

"Townsend Farms is implementing this voluntary recall after learning that one of the ingredients of the frozen Organic Antioxidant Blend, pomegranate seeds processed in Turkey, may be linked to an illness outbreak outside of the United States," the company stated in a press release Tuesday. "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."

The product also contains substances that originate from Argentina, Chili and the United States, CDC said.

The CDC, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and local and state health departments are continuing their investigation.

Meanwhile, Townsend Farms already must contend with lawsuits.

One complaint filed in San Diego County alleges a women discovered from the San Diego County Health Department that she was a victim of the HAP outbreak linked to Townsend Farms. Townsend Farms faces at least one other lawsuit that was filed on behalf of a 51-year-old woman from Lakewood, Calif., according to a KABC news report.

Townsend Farms, based in Fairview, Ore., could not be reached  today for comment. A woman who picked up the phone at the main office directed an inquiry to the company's call center. An unidentified man there referred a request for comment to Bill Gaar, an Oregon lawyer representing Townsend Farms. Gaar of Buckley Law P.C. did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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