Attention all Costco and Harris Teeter shoppers: If you purchased frozen mixed berries from either of these stores some time between February and May, check out the bag before you add them to your post-workout smoothie. Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend and Harris Teeter Organic Antioxidant Berry Blend have been linked to a hepatitis A outbreak, which has affected 118 people in eight states so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The berry mix producers, Townsend Farms Inc. of Fairview, OR, initiated a product recall on June 3.
We're used to warnings about E. coli and salmonella in our food, but hep A? Seems strange, but according to food safety coach Jeff Nelken, this isn't the first time this virus, which can lead to liver damage, has shown up on our plate.
“Ten years ago, the chain restaurant Chi Chi's sparked a hepatitis A outbreak with its green onions,” Nelken says. Investigators later discovered that the green onions, which came from Mexico, were being handpicked by children who were also urinating and defecating in the fields—and foods contaminated in that matter can spread hep A, Nelken says. This outbreak resulted in three deaths and left 600 people sick.
The FDA is currently looking into whether we have another Chi Chi's-style outbreak on our hands. But unfortunately, because the berry mix was sourced from four different countries—the United States, Argentina, Chile, and Turkey—it'll be much harder to pinpoint exactly where the hep A virus began to spread.
“It's not just about whether berry pickers washed their hands after using the restroom. Another issue could be the water source used to wash the berries,” Nelken says. “If the water is contaminated with fecal matter, it's really easy to get started on the road to poopdom.”
If you're feeling paranoid about your fresh or frozen berries, consider blanching them to knock out any bacteria: Place them on a metal strainer and dip them in hot (not quite boiling) water for 15 seconds. Then rinse in ice cold water to reverse the cooking process. The berries may look a little distorted, but they'll be safer to eat.