To curb an ongoing Hepatitis A outbreak traced to frozen organic fruit sold at Costco stores in Canada, the retailer is offering free vaccinations to consumers, as it did in 2013 when a similar outbreak was linked to another frozen fruit product.
The current outbreak linked to Nature’s Touch brand frozen organic “Berry Cherry Blend” includes at least 13 people from three provinces, according to a Monday update from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). Costco locations in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador received the frozen fruit mix
“If you have Nature’s Touch Organic Berry Cherry Blend frozen fruit in your home, do not eat this product. If you are unsure whether a frozen fruit product you have in your home is part of the food recall warning, do not consume it. Secure the product in a plastic bag, throw it out and wash your hands with warm soapy water,” recommends Canada’s Public Health.
“If you suspect you have been exposed to the recalled product, or have symptoms consistent for Hepatitis A, see your health care provider immediately. Vaccination can prevent the onset of symptoms if given within two weeks of exposure.”
The health agency’s Monday update indicated Costco is providing free vaccinations.
Wednesday Costco officials posted a notice on the company’s website stating vaccine “supply and capacity is limited.”
“If you have eaten the product within the last 14 days, it is advised that you contact your local public health department or personal health care provider to determine if a hepatitis A vaccination is required; they will provide the vaccine if necessary. Costco will also offer a hepatitis A vaccine, but supply and capacity is limited. Please visit your local Costco Pharmacy for more information on vaccine availability,” according to the Costco website.
The retailer has additional instructions for Quebec residents: “If you have eaten the product within the last 14 days, you should visit the pharmacy located at the Costco closest to you to determine if a hepatitis A vaccination is required. If the pharmacy at your local Costco cannot provide the vaccine, or if there is no Costco with a pharmacy close to you, please visit your CLSC or CSSS.”
Long shelf life, long incubation period
Canadian Costco stores sold the frozen organic fruit beginning Dec. 11, 2015, and continuing through April 15 this year when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recalled it.
The recalled Nature’s Touch Organic Berry Cherry Blend has “best before” dates through March 15, 2018.
The CFIA is concerned that consumers may still have the recalled product in their homes. It can be identified by the following label information:
- Nature’s Touch brand Organic Berry Cherry Blend
- 1.5 kg (3.3 lb)
- Best Before dates up to 2018 MR 15
- UPC 8 73668 00179 1
“Food contaminated with Hepatitis A virus may not look or smell spoiled,” according to the CFIA recall notice.
“Consumption of food contaminated with this virus may cause hepatitis and produce a self-limited disease that does not result in chronic infection or chronic liver disease. The illness is usually mild and starts about 15 to 50 days after the contaminated food is eaten.”
The public health agency reported that additional outbreak cases could be identified because of the long time it takes for symptoms to develop and the lag time between illness onset and laboratory confirmation.
People infected with Hepatitis A can have a wide range of symptoms according to the public health warning. Some do not get sick at all, though they can still spread the infection to others. The PHAC reports most people with Hepatitis A develop the following symptoms two to seven weeks after being infected with the virus:
- loss of appetite
- stomach cramps
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
- dark urine
Symptoms are usually mild, and the illness usually lasts one to two weeks. Although severe cases can last several months.
Class action still pending from 2013 outbreak
When a Hepatitis A outbreak in 2013 was traced back to frozen fruit sold at Costco stores in the U.S., the retailer offered free vaccinations, but that wasn’t enough to stop consumers from filing suit in federal court.
The CDC reported 165 people in 10 states with confirmed cases of Hepatitis A, with 71 people having symptoms so severe that they had to be admitted to hospitals.
As many as 25,000 people are estimated to have received hepatitis a vaccines (over 10,000 provided by Costco and Townsend Farms), according to a certified class action pending in federal court in California.
Attorneys for Costco and Townsend Farms contend the companies are not liable for the 2013 outbreak. Among their arguments:
- the number of bags containing contaminated pomegranate arils … was very small compared to the total production during the relevant time period;
- for plaintiffs, aka consumers, to prove that the recalled product was “defective” they must show that each bag of the recalled product was actually contaminated with Hepatitis A virus;
- most of the product sold by Costco was apparently uncontaminated and perfectly fit for human consumption;
- in the parlance of product liability law, most of the mixed berries sold were not defective; and
- each plaintiff must prove contamination in the package of berries he or she consumed.
On April 14, Costco posted a news release announcing a quarterly cash dividend on Costco common stock and approving a quarterly increase from $.40 to $.45 per share, or $1.80 per share on an annualized basis.
Costco currently operates 703 warehouses, including 492 in the United States and Puerto Rico, 90 in Canada, 36 in Mexico, 27 in the United Kingdom, 24 in Japan, 12 in Korea, 12 in Taiwan, eight in Australia and two in Spain, according to the news release.
NOTE: A prior version of this story incorrectly stated that: “As many as 25,000 people are estimated to have been sickened by the Townsend Farms brand fruit, according to a certified class action pending in federal court in California.” This has been corrected above.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)© Food Safety News