A vague link in the supply chain is blurring the public’s view of a recall of frozen strawberries from Egypt that are blamed for infecting at least 134 people across nine states in an ongoing Hepatitis A outbreak.
The Egyptian company that produced, processed and exported the fruit is recalling all of the frozen strawberries it sent to the U.S. since Jan. 1 this year. However, government and corporate officials will not say how many tons of strawberries are implicated, who imported them, or what percentage of them are accounted for — or unaccounted for — in the nationwide distribution chain.
“We do not distribute them in the United States,” an official with International Company for Agricultural Production & Processing (ICAPP) said Monday afternoon.
“And while we’re working closely with the FDA to ensure that the supply of frozen strawberries exported to the U.S. are safe and healthy, we do not yet have complete information about downstream distribution.”
Officials with the Food and Drug Administration posted the Egyptian company’s recall notice Monday, but are barred by corporate confidentiality clauses in federal law from revealing the company’s customers or volumes of strawberries involved.
At least one restaurant chain, Tropical Smoothie Cafe, received some of the strawberries from ICAPP’s Egyptian fields and facilities. Virginia public health officials linked the Hepatitis A outbreak to strawberry smoothies in early August.
The restaurant chain pulled the Egyptian strawberries from all of its locations, but Tropical Smoothie Cafe customers concentrated in Virginia and nearby states had already been infected. Of the 134 victims, 107 are Virginia residents.
Distribution details and defendants
The statement from the Egyptian producer/exporter suggested only one distributor is involved in the U.S.
“We are working with our U.S. distributor to collect this information and will respond to your questions as soon as we can. We have full confidence that the recall is proceeding effectively.”
An FDA spokesman expressed similar optimism about the status of the recall, as did a spokesman with Sysco Corp., the largest broadline supplier to foodservice operators in the United States.
“In an abundance of caution, Sysco immediately halted shipments and placed all frozen strawberries with a Country of Origin of Egypt on hold on Aug. 19, as soon as questions were raised regarding its quality,” the spokesman for Houston-based Sysco said Monday.
“On Oct. 27, ICAPP issued a recall of this product. We subsequently communicated this action to our facilities and customers, in an abundance of caution and despite the fact that we have not been distributing the product involved in the recall since August, so that our customers could ensure that they did not have any affected product in their inventories.”
While FDA officials cannot reveal certain distribution information because of corporate confidentiality laws, the agency did report Monday that the implicated frozen strawberries were not offered for retail sale direct to consumers.
“ICAPP’s recalled frozen strawberries were distributed to food service establishments nationwide,” according to FDA’s outbreak update.
“The FDA’s investigation in connection with this outbreak identified five samples of ICAPP’s frozen strawberries that tested positive for Hepatitis A.”
The Egyptian company, and government, have reported their tests have not returned any positive results for the highly contagious virus.
FDA officials have contacted the Egyptian International Health Regulations National Focal Point to discuss the investigation, but have not reported and details on what Egyptian authorities have said or what that country is doing to determine the root cause of the Hepatitis A contamination.
In its recall notice, the Egyptian producer/exporter reported it is cooperating with U.S. officials.
“ICAPP has been engaged with FDA in its investigation of this outbreak and is taking this action in consultation with FDA because Hepatitis A virus was detected in four lots of frozen strawberries that were exported to the U.S. by ICAPP,” according to the recall.
Civil lawsuits filed by outbreak victims have named as defendants Tropical Smoothie Cafe and the following companies in the supply chain: JMG Enterprises Inc. of Great Falls, VA; Sysco Corp. of Houston; Sysco Hampton Roads Inc. of Houston; Sysco VA LLC of Harrisonburg, VA; Sysco Merchandising and Supply Chain Services Inc. of Houston; International Traders Inc. of Rocky Mount, NC; Patagonia Foods LLC of San Luis Obispo, CA; and VLM Foods USA Inc. of Plattsburgh, NY.
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