Frozen strawberries linked to a Hepatitis outbreak have been recalled. The reason is gross — and might be unavoidable.
Organic frozen strawberries have been linked to an outbreak of Hepatitis A.
Hepatitis A can be spread by contaminated fecal matter and poor hygiene.
One expert told Insider that strawberries are especially vulnerable to contamination.
A viral outbreak linked to the consumption of frozen strawberries has prompted a national recall in the middle of what retailers had branded Frozen Food Month, sending two people to the hospital and raising the question: Why does this keep happening?
On March 17, federal authorities announced that frozen strawberries from two different suppliers were being voluntarily recalled after at least five people were believed to have contracted Hepatitis A from eating them, all in the state of Washington, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two people have been hospitalized.
The affected strawberries, from companies California Splendor and Scenic Fruit, were sold at retailers such as Costco and Trader Joe's. (The full list is here.) The cause of the outbreak is still under investigation, but Hepatitis A is often spread by contaminated fecal matter and the failure of someone, somewhere between farm and table, to practice adequate hygiene. California Splendor and Scenic Fruit did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The best way to prevent getting Hepatitis A, even if someone else is not washing their hands, is to get vaccinated; health authorities also recommend washing hands after using the bathroom and before preparing or consuming food. Signs that one has been infected include stomach pain, fever, yellowing of the skin, and fatigue.
But Dr. Darin Detwiler, an expert on food policy at Northeastern University and author of "Food Safety: Past, Present, and Predictions," told Insider that for some immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable people, including the very young and elderly, the recall should serve as a reminder that some foods are more potentially dangerous than others.
When it comes to food safety, "There are some things that just create more of a problem," Detwiler said. "Strawberries have more of a likelihood of becoming contaminated even if you do everything correctly."
Indeed, it was around this time last year that another strawberry recall was announced, that one after a Hepatitis A outbreak was linked to at least 18 hospitalizations.
'A lot of outbreaks'
Sometimes companies are clearly to blame when people are harmed by contaminated food. In 2015, the former CEO of a company that sold peanuts was sentenced to 28 years in prison after knowingly selling products that he knew to be contaminated with salmonella, NPR reported. "Just ship it," he wrote in an email.
But berries are especially vulnerable to contamination: they are gathered by hand; do not have any natural barriers, like a peel or shell; cannot be washed too extensively without damaging them; and are not typically cooked before eaten. All that makes them more likely than, say, a watermelon or avocado, to be contaminated at the time of consumption — even when companies and workers are diligent and follow best practices, Detwiler said.
Fecal matter infected with Hepatitis A could be spread by workers who have not washed their hands or because the water at the farm itself is contaminated, perhaps by animal waste. The freezing of berries after they're gathered is another stop in the road to consumers that serves as a potential point of contamination.
More than 3,000 people a year are estimated to die from food-borne pathogens in the United States, according to the CDC. Salmonella is at the top of the list when it comes to fatalities, followed by toxoplasma, a parasite associated with undercooked or contaminated meat, and Listeria.
Hepatitis A is unlikely to result in death in an otherwise healthy adult, but a key reason for publicly announcing a food recall is to alert those who may have been exposed and prevent the virus from spreading to others. The Food and Drug Administration recommends that those who believe they have been exposed to the virus, and who have not already been vaccinated, consult their healthcare provider, who may recommend the vaccine or immune globulin, which provides antibodies to fight infection.
Putting aside the question of how exactly these latest strawberries were contaminated, and who if anyone is to blame, Detwiler said the recall should prompt some to consider more carefully what they eat and from where they get it.
"Maybe those more vulnerable populations need to realize that strawberries and certain produce are more susceptible to pathogens," he said. That doesn't have to mean eliminating them from your diet, but it could mean being more mindful of how many steps it takes for something to end up on your plate and growing your own or buying local. Because when it comes to major food suppliers, he said, "the reality is that there are a lot of outbreaks."
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