July 20, 2018

How Did Hepatitis A Get on Costco Berries?

The hepatitis A outbreak associated with Townsend Farms berries sold at Costco has sickened at least 37 people in six states and raised a lot of questions. One of them is how does food become contaminated with hepatitis A?

strawberries-fpbHepatitis A is virus that is spread when an infected person doesn’t wash his his or her hands properly after going to the bathroom and touches objects or food. The foods and drinks most likely to be contaminated with hepatitis A are fruits, vegetables, shellfish, ice, and water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In the United States, where the hepatitis A vaccine is available and chlorination kills any of the virus that enters the water supply, the disease isn’t very common. But it is prevalent in other countries including Mexico and India, countries in Central and South America, Africa and the Middle East.

When foodborne illness outbreaks are caused by hepatitis A, the most frequently reported source is an infected food handler at the point of sale, such as restaurants. Recent examples include incidents at:  800 Degrees Three Fires  in Frort Wayne, Indiana; the High Hampton Inn in NC; Papa Murphy’s in Chubbuck, ID and Alta in New York City.

But outbreaks have also been associated with contamination during growing, harvesting, processing and distribution, which health officials suspect is the case in this outbreak. In these cases, an infected worker handled the produce or it was washed with water contaminated with the virus. The contaminated berry mix associated with this outbreak contained pomegranate seeds and other produce from three countries where the virus is fairly common: Argentina, Chile, and Turkey.

Hepatitis A is hearty. Using clean water to wash produce contaminated with the virus will not remove it, and freezing does not kill it.

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