Oregon frozen berry mix recalled after link to hepatitis A

FAIRVIEW, Ore. A Fairview, Ore., company is recalling a frozen berry mix sold to Costco and Harris Teeter stores after the product was linked to at least 34 hepatitis A illnesses in five states.

The Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday that Townsend Farms of Fairview, Ore., is recalling its frozen Organic Antioxidant Blend, packaged under the Townsend Farms label at Costco and under the Harris Teeter brand at those stores.

Last week, the bags were yanked from the shelves at Costco and all customers who had purchased the product received robo-calls from the store.

Illnesses were reported in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California. Hawaii health officials are also investigating three cases of hepatitis A in people who have eaten the frozen berry product.

Recalled berries - What to look for

The product was sold at Costco warehouse stores under the product name Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend, 3 lb. bag and UPC 0 78414 404448.

The recalled codes are located on the back of the package with the words "BEST BY" followed by the code T012415 sequentially through T053115, followed by a letter.

Locally, 75 bags of the recalled fruit was sold in Lane County -- the most of any county in Oregon, according to Lane County Health & Human Services. The bags were also sold elsewhere in the state and several hundred were sold in the Vancouver area.

So far, no hepatitis A cases have been confirmed in Oregon, but counties are receiving reports of illnesses that are being investigated.

If you ate some of the berries int the last two weeks, state health officials say go to your doctor. You may be able to get a vaccine in time to stop the disease.

If you ate the berries more than two weeks ago, public health officials say there is no need to go to the doctor unless you get sick.

"We don't want to send people needlessly," said Dr. Paul Cieslak with the Oregon Public Health Division. "Your doctor won't be able to do anything to prevent it."

Cieslak says odds are you won't get sick because they have found no cases in Oregon. Still, he said you should be aware of the symptoms, which include fatigue, low-grade fever, dark-colored urine and jaundice.

The recall came three days after the FDA and the federal Centers for Disease Control first announced a suspected link between the berries and the illnesses. The agency did not say why there was not an immediate recall. Costco has stores across the country, while Harris Teeter stores are in eight East Coast states and the District of Columbia.

Hepatitis A is a contagious liver disease that can last from a few weeks to a several months. People often contract it when an infected food handler prepares food without appropriate hand hygiene. Food already contaminated with the virus can also cause outbreaks.

The FDA said it is inspecting the processing facilities of Townsend Farms. The CDC said the strain of hepatitis is rarely seen in North or South America but is found in the North Africa and Middle East regions.

Bill Gaar, a lawyer for Townsend Farms, said last week that the frozen organic blend bag includes pomegranate seeds from Turkey. The seeds are only used in the product associated with the outbreak and no other Townsend Farms products, he said.

"We do have very good records, we know where the (pomegranate seeds) came from, we're looking into who the broker is and we're sourcing it back up the food chain to get to it," Gaar said.

Hepatitis A illnesses occur within 15 to 50 days of exposure to the virus. Symptoms include fatigue, abdominal pain, jaundice, abnormal liver tests, dark urine and pale stool.

Vaccination can prevent illness if given within two weeks of exposure, and those who have already been vaccinated are unlikely to become ill, according to CDC.

CDC said the first illnesses were reported at the end of April. The same genotype of hepatitis A was identified in an outbreak in Europe linked to frozen berries this year, the CDC said, as well as a 2012 outbreak in British Columbia related to a frozen berry blend with pomegranate seeds from Egypt. In addition to the United States and Turkey, the agency said the Townsend Farms berries also included products from Argentina and Chile.