Bentley, from La Puente, Calif., got a call from Costco on the evening of Friday, May 31. The retailer had just announced a recall of Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend of frozen berries linked to a hepatitis A outbreak, and was now working fast to call the 240,000 customers who had purchased the 3-pound bags of berries since February.
While he appreciated the warning, Bentley said he felt overcome with stress at the possibility that he had contracted a serious virus that could jeopardize his already fragile health.
A quadriplegic man with neuromuscular disease, Bentley prioritizes healthful eating and avoids illness at all costs. The Townsend Farms berry blend caught his eye because of the organic, antioxidant part of the label, and he knew that getting in servings of fruit with a breakfast smoothie could help maintain good nutrition.
“In the past I’ve been hospitalized just because of the stomach flu,” Bentley told Food Safety News, “so the thought of getting hepatitis A was frightening.”
Since he got the call from Costco sometime around 7 p.m. on Friday, Bentley had to wait through the weekend before his doctor’s office would respond to his inquiries about a blood test. But because he can’t drive, he had to wait until Tuesday, June 4, for his caregiver to take him to the clinic.
It wasn’t until Friday, June 7, that Bentley could relax knowing that he wasn’t infected. For a week, he said he could hardly sleep due to worries that he might come down with symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pains and jaundice in the coming weeks, as news reports and recall alerts had suggested might happen.
Other Costco customers who spoke to Food Safety News felt similarly, experiencing sleepless nights and paranoia that they could be spreading the virus while they awaited clinical tests.
Unlike Bentley, who got a call Friday evening, Andrea Medrano of Hilo, Hawaii, said she never got a call from Costco despite having the same phone number the entire time she’s been a Costco member. To her surprise, she also missed all news coverage of the recall and outbreak. She didn’t get the news until she received a letter from Costco roughly a week after the recall was first announced.
Craig Wilson, Costco’s vice president of quality assurance and food safety, told Food Safety News last week that the company called customers who had purchased the product twice — once on Friday and then again early the next week — before sending out letters to each of those customers, postmarked June 5. Bentley confirmed that he received an additional call early in the week after the recall announcement, as well as a letter in the mail.
Medrano said she just had one sleepless night before she was able to see a doctor. She also still received the vaccination within the two-week window in which it will likely still be effective. (Those exposed to hepatitis A may increase their chances of staving off symptoms of infection the sooner they receive vaccination, and 14 days has been shown to be the maximum length of time for effectiveness. Symptoms of hepatitis A infection generally begin 23 to 33 days after exposure.)
Her biggest frustration, she said, was that she didn’t receive notification from Costco until nearly a week after the recall announcement.
“The letter was a little piece of paper that looked like an advertisement,” Medrano said. “No call, no voicemail, no email. It didn’t seem like a very effective warning. And the letter was dated June 5, so I felt like that was pretty late in the game.”
San Diego resident Adrienne Martinez said she didn’t receive a call from Costco either. She heard about the recall on National Public Radio, and when she went home to check her freezer, she found the recalled berries chilling inside.
She then called Costco to confirm the recall before arranging to get vaccinated, only making the two-week cutoff by two days. A few days later, she got the letter from Costco in the mail, but said she has no evidence of receiving a call.
One of the most stressful parts of dealing with the news of the outbreak, Martinez said, was knowing that she had held and kissed a friend’s 2-month-old baby shortly after first eating the Townsend Farms berries. She was worried for days, until talking to a doctor, that she might have passed the virus onto the child.
“It just added stress to everyone’s lives that no one wants to deal with, especially when I was worried I might be contaminating other people,” Martinez said.
Bentley, Medrano and Martinez are all being represented by food safety law firm Marler Clark in a class action lawsuit against Townsend Farms. Marler Clark underwrites Food Safety News.
Each of the three sources expressed the feeling that they purchased the organic berries with the trust that the fruit blends would be more wholesome than their non-organic counterparts, and that a bit of their trust had been betrayed to learn they could have been sickened.
“The thing that struck me the most was the way the berries were packaged to stress they were organic and antioxidant, implying that they were really healthy,” Bentley said. “That’s why I bought them — to get good nutrition. To find out that they had something really dangerous in them was really disturbing.”© Food Safety News