In Virginia and nearby states, tainted berries blamed for hepatitis A outbreak


Although food-related health risks likely will be dipping a little with Americans’ outdoor feasting winding down with the summer-ending Labor Day holiday, state and federal health officials have confirmed they are investigating an outbreak of hepatitis A in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and North Carolina.

At least 70 infections have been linked to tainted frozen strawberries used in frozen smoothies served in various locations of the Tropical Smoothie Café chain. The firm has apologized publicly for any issues created by its products and said it voluntarily pulled the berries as soon as it learned of their contamination.

Although hepatitis A is not the most severe from of the viral liver infection, half of the 44 consumers infected in Virginia were sickened sufficiently to require hospitalization.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that hepatitis A is extremely contagious, and it can be spread not only by foods tainted by improper handling (especially exposure to field-borne viruses and germs) but also by a lack of hygiene — hand-washing after using the bathroom — by restaurant staff. It causes fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, clay-colored bowel movements, joint pain, and jaundice (a yellowing of the skin or eyes).

The illness−which can be especially problematic for the old, the very young, expectant mothers, and those with compromised immune systems−can last from two to six months, and it does not cause symptoms until two to six weeks after exposure. Those who think they may have been exposed can be treated early; a vaccination is available, and is especially recommended for travelers to the developing world.

Meantime, another hepatitis A outbreak in Hawaii is dwarfing the incident in Virginia and its nearby states. Health officials in the islands say they have confirmed more than 200 infections linked to tainted scallops served in the popular Genki Sushi chain, with more than 50 hospitalized victims.

I’ve written before about the big challenges Americans face with food safety, including recent reports of an outbreak of E coli illnesses linked to consumers snarfing down raw cookie dough. The CDC says it monitored between “17 and 40 potential food poisoning or related clusters each week in 2015, and investigated more than 195 multistate clusters. These investigations led to the identification of confirmed or suspected vehicles of transmission and the recalls of a variety of foods including chicken, pork, sprouts, cheese, ice cream, nut butter, cucumbers, and raw frozen tuna.” Federal officials estimate that food borne illnesses sicken as many as 1 in 6 Americans annually.

I’ve noted the outrage caused by a broad, protracted outbreak of food-related illnesses tied last year to the Chipotle fast food Mexican restaurant chain. Congress, after years of squeezing health and science funding, finally approved significant budget increases early this year, including to fund stepped up efforts to improve food safety.

Still, it has required legal action in the criminal and civil justice systems to snap various parties in the vast, international food chain into a better acceptance of their responsibility to protecting our collective health. Indeed, the activism by lawyers has played a major role in advancing food safety in an inarguable fashion.

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