(UPDATED COVERAGE, June 6 ) A hepatitis A outbreak linked to an organic berry mix from Townsend Farms Inc. is spreading while the farm is under federal investigation and facing multiple lawsuits.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 61 people from seven states have hepatitis A linked to Organic Antioxidant Blend frozen berries from Townsend Farms Inc., Fairview, Ore., as of June 5.
Eleven people have been hospitalized. The first reported illness was April 29. The states involved are Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Hawaii.
Calls to Townsend were referred to attorney William Gaar, who did not return calls for comment.
An unknown amount of the product was shipped to Costco Warehouse Corp. stores and Harris Teeter stores. Of the 30 sick people interviewed, 22 reported consuming product purchased at Costco, but the CDC said no illnesses had been reported by Harris Teeter customers as of June 5.
Retailers acted quickly
Both retailers began removing the berries from stores and notifying their customers days before Townsend recalled them, company sources said. The berry mix includes strawberries, cherries, raspberries, blueberries and pomegranate arils.
Townsend recalled the berries June 3, four days after the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration warned retailers and the public to discard the product. The recall included incorrect identification numbers for the Harris Teeter branded product. That information was corrected June 5.
Craig Wilson, vice president for food safety at Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco said the chain sold about 330,000 bags of the berry blend between February and May 29 when they began pulling the product.
Danna Jones, spokeswoman for Harris Teeter, Matthews, N.C., said that chain began removing the berries from stores June 1. She didn’t know how many bags of the frozen berries the chain had sold.
In their recall, Townsend’s president and vice president Mike and Margaret Townsend said they took action because of a hepatitis A outbreak in another country. None of the company’s product has returned positive results for hepatitis A, they said in the recall notice.
“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 U.S.,” according to the company release.
June 6 the FDA reported it was “finalizing a protocol to test berries for the Hepatitis A virus, and will be testing samples related to the outbreak, including the frozen blend.” The FDA announced May 31 it had begun inspecting and investigating the Townsend operation.
Unusual hepatitis A strain
The CDC reports the strain of hepatitis A linked to the Townsend product is identical to one linked to outbreaks in Europe and Canada.
“This genotype was identified in a 2013 outbreak 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 report.
“Preliminary laboratory studies suggest the outbreak strain of hepatitis A virus is genotype 1B. This strain is rarely seen in the Americas but circulates in the North Africa and Middle East regions.”
The CDC is encouraging anyone who ate the Townsend Organic Anti-Oxidant Blend within the past two weeks to check with their doctors to determine if they should get a hepatitis A vaccine because it can be effective for up to two weeks after exposure. Symptoms may take 50 days to manifest.
Legal action pending
Three lawsuits related to the outbreak have already been filed against Townsend Farms Inc. in Superior Courts in California in Orange County, San Diego County and Los Angeles County.
The Seattle-based Marler Clark law firm filed to form a class action suit for all people who were exposed to the Townsend Farms product and received a vaccine or immune globulin dose as a precaution. Attorney Bill Marler said he believes there are about 25,000 people who fit the proposed class description and should be reimbursed for the shots.
The other suit filed by Marler Clark, as well as one filed by Houston law firm Simon & Luke, involve personal damages for people infected with hepatitis A.