Hepatitis A outbreak forces another frozen fruit product recall

Teresa Tanoos's picture
FDA detains pomegranate seed shipments from Turkey tied to hepatitis A outbreak
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it will detain shipments of pomegranate seeds imported from Turkey after an investigation identified the ingredient as a common link to an outbreak of acute hepatitis A in the U.S. that has now sickened nearly 130 people – all of whom contracted the viral infection after consuming a frozen fruit mix containing berries and pomegranate seeds.

The move is an unusual one. While the FDA routinely detains food that tests positive for harmful pathogens, it rarely blocks imports based on a food safety investigation.

FDA officials made the announcement on Monday, saying that shipments of the fruit from Goknur Foodstuffs Import Export Trading will not be admitted into the United States after the agency traced the outbreak to frozen organic pomegranate from that company. The hold prevents Goknur Foodstuffs Import Export Trading, based in Ankara, from exporting the fruit to the United States.

A shipment of the company’s pomegranate seeds was the only common ingredient in the frozen fruit mix sold at Costco and Harris Teeter stores under the brand, Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend or Harris Teeter Organic Antioxidant Blend. Reports of illness after eating the product sold at Costco prompted a recall on June 3, 2013. Since then, inspectors from the FDA have been investigating the company that produces the fruit, Townsend Farms of Fairview, Oregon.

On June 26, the FDA also announced that Scenic Fruit Company of Gresham, Oregon is voluntarily recalling 61,092 eight-ounce bags of Woodstock Frozen Organic Pomegranate Kernels. Although the organic pomegranates are imported from Turkey, no illnesses are currently associated with the Woodstock product, and product testing has showed no presence of hepatitis A in the product so far.

Nevertheless, the company’s decision to voluntarily recall its products was made out of an abundance of caution in response to the ongoing outbreak investigation by the FDA and CDC. Based on the epidemiological and traceback investigation of the outbreak, the kernels have the potential to be contaminated with Hepatitis A virus.

“By combining information gained from the FDA’s traceback and trace forward investigations and the CDC’s epidemiological investigation, FDA and CDC have determined that the most likely vehicle for the Hepatitis A virus is appears to be a common shipment of pomegranate seeds from Turkey used by Scenic Fruit Company to make the recalled Woodstock Frozen Organic Pomegranate Kernels and by Townsend Farms to make the recalled Townsend Farms and Harris Teeter Organic Anti-Oxidant Blend,” states the CDC.

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Packages of Woodstock Frozen Organic Pomegranate Kernels were shipped from February 2013 through May 2013 to UNFI distribution centers in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington State. UNFI distribution centers may have further distributed products to retail stores in other states.

Meanwhile, at least 127 people in eight states have been sickened by acute hepatitis A after consuming the frozen fruit mix sold at Costco under the brand Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend, and at least 55 people have been hospitalized, according to the CDC last Friday.

Illnesses have been reported between March 31 and June 15 in Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wisconsin. The people who were ill in Wisconsin were exposed to the product in California, CDC officials said.

“This outbreak highlights the food safety challenge posed by today’s global food system,” said Michael R. Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. “The presence in a single product of multiple ingredients from multiple countries compounds the difficulty of finding the cause of an illness outbreak. The hepatitis A outbreak shows how we have improved our ability to investigate and respond to outbreaks, but also why we are working to build a food safety system that more effectively prevents them.”

Hepatitis A is a viral liver disease that can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months. The infection is spread when an infected food handler prepares food without proper hand hygiene or when human feces contaminates food.

The viral liver disease can cause mild to severe illness lasting a few weeks to several months. Symptoms include fatigue, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, low fever and yellowing of the eyes and skin, although some people who contract hepatitis A never exhibit any symptoms or signs of the disease.

Shots to prevent the illness are available, but they must be received within two weeks of eating contaminated food to prevent hepatitis A, according to health officials.

SOURCES: 1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), "FDA to detain pomegranate seeds offered for import from Goknur of Turkey" (June 29, 2013). 2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Press Release: “Scenic Fruit Company Recalls Woodstock Frozen Organic Pomegranate Kernels Due To Possible Health Risk” (June 26, 2013). 3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Multistate outbreak of Hepatitis A infections linked to pomegranate seeds from Turkey” (June 28, 2013)

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