Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture is investigating the possibility that strawberries being exported to the United States are contaminated with Hepatitis A.
Ministry spokesman Edi Hawash said media reports from Virginia sparked the inquiry. He said Egypt has not received any official request from any U.S. government agency.
Virginia health officials suspect that 17 recent cases of Hepatitis A are linked to the Tropical Smooth Café, a smoothie chain that was using frozen strawberries from Egypt during the exposure timeframe.
Tropical Smoothie Café has stopped using the strawberries at all its locations, including those outside Virginia. It says its food handling practices at its outlets “have not been implicated in any way.”
Virginia health officials have asked that anyone who consumed a smoothie with frozen strawberries at any restaurant in the last 50 days watch for symptoms of Hepatitis A. Those include jaundice, fever, fatigue, loss of appetite and nausea. As of Tuesday, 17 people had been confirmed with Hepatitis A infections, according to the state health department.
Meanwhile, Egypt is taking random samples, but has yet to find any sign of the virus. The General Organization for Export and Import Control is not normally responsible for strawberries but has been working with the Health Ministry on the investigation.
Egypt exports 40 million tons of fresh and frozen strawberries to 30 countries in America, Southeast Asia and Europe.
In Egypt, the Health Ministry inspects strawberries and issues certificates stating they are ready for export. Egypt’s Union of Producers and Exporters of Horticultural Crops issued a statement Tuesday, casting doubt that the country is the source of the contamination.
Egypt is the largest strawberry exporter in the Persian Gulf. It claims to follow Good Agricultural Practices at every stage of production. Genetic testing by the Virginia Health Department shows the illnesses were caused by a strain of Hepatitis A that has been associated with past outbreaks due to frozen strawberries from Egypt.
The U.S granted Egypt market access to export strawberries in February 2013. At that time, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt said Egypt was the fourth-largest strawberry producer in the world, with production valued at nearly $330 million annually.
Hepatitis A is an inflammation of the liver caused by the Hepatitis A virus. Symptoms develop 15-50 days after exposure to the virus, which can occur through direct contact with another person who has the infection or by consuming food or drink that has been contaminated with the virus.
Frequent handwashing with soap and warm water after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, or before preparing food can help prevent the spread of Hepatitis A. Vaccines within two weeks of exposure are also effective.
Virginia health officials say it is very important for people who have symptoms of Hepatitis A to stay home from work, especially if they work in food service.
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