In August, 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, announced that a Hepatitis A outbreak linked to Tropical Smoothie Café seemed to be under control. The culprit was frozen strawberries that were imported from Egypt.
Hepatitis A is a very contagious disease that can be spread to others when an infected person does not wash his or her hands after going to the bathroom then touches foods or other objects. It can also be spread through sexual contact, and by consuming contaminated food and drinks. The disease causes an inflammation of the liver and is characterized by symptoms including stomach pain, fatigue, dark urine, pale stools, fever and yellow skin or eyes.
The connection to Tropical Smoothie Café frozen strawberries were discovered by the combined efforts of multiple state agencies, CDC, and the Food and Drug Administration, FDA. To date, there has been no indication that the contaminated Egyptian strawberries were distributed to any other restaurants or retailers in the United States.
As of September 14, Food Safety News reported that the total of individuals that had acquired Hepatitis a had risen to 113 in Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Of those states, Virginia had the highest number of those infected. It was reported that the state had 94 cases with individuals ranging in age from 14 to 70. While no deaths were reported, 39 of those people had to be hospitalized.
Tropical Smoothie Cafe issued a statement on September 6 that when it learned of the link between its frozen strawberries and the Hepatitis A outbreak, they pulled the strawberries from all Cafes in the region. The Egyptian strawberries have not been served to any customers since they were removed from Cafes on August 8th. The company expressed its sorrow that people became ill from eating at its Café’s. In an attempt to keep anything like this happening in the future, the company, according to its statement, took the following steps:
- Stopped sourcing Egyptian strawberries.
- Is in the process of working with its supplier to make sure that Cafes receive strawberries sourced in America.
- Employed an epidemiologist that is a food supply-chain and safety expert.
- Launched a complete review of its safety and food sourcing policies.
- Improved its employee training and certification related to food safety.
- Improved cleaning, sanitizing and reporting policies and protocols.
Hepatitis A has an incubation period of up to 50 days before symptoms appear. This means that individuals that were served the contaminated strawberries could come down with the disease until approximately the end of September. The CDC recommends that any individual that experiences symptoms of Hepatitis A contact their physician as soon as possible. In the meantime, they should stay home and limit contact with others.
There are very few outbreaks of Hepatitis A in the United States. When they do occur, it is generally in relation to traveling or individuals visiting from counties that have high rates of the disease.
This Hepatitis A outbreak follows on the heels of the outbreak that occurred in Hawaii after Genki Sushi served contaminated imported scallops to its customers. It is concerning that quality controls and inspections are not in place that would stop contaminated food from being sold and consumed. I am curious why imported products are used when they can be obtained right here in the United States. Surely it cannot be as expensive to purchase local products as it must be to import them, especially given the health risks involved.