Product label of Townsend Farms Organic Anti-Oxidant Blend frozen berry and pomegranate mix
Click for larger image. Image credit: CDC

Hepatitis A is an illness which affects the liver and is caused by a virus. (You’ll be shocked to learn it’s called the hepatitis A virus.) It is usually transmitted through food and water contaminated by human feces, even in microscopic amounts. In the US outbreaks have frequently been linked to food workers who have hepatitis A and contaminate food with their hands. The disease typically causes fatigue, abdominal pain, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), and dark urine. Patients typically recover completely without lasting damage to the liver. Unlike other forms of viral hepatitis, hepatitis A does not cause chronic infection. After the patient has recovered, the virus is cleared from the body and the patient is no longer infectious. Recovery is followed by lifelong immunity.

An outbreak caused by a negligent restaurant worker is bad enough, but we live in an interconnected international food marketplace. Contamination of the food supply can happen anywhere from the farm to the consumer’s hands; the farther upstream the contamination, the more people may be affected.

The most recent food-borne hepatitis A outbreak has been sickening people since March. This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated their findings from their ongoing investigation. The outbreak has been linked to Townsend Farms Organic Anti-Oxidant Blend frozen berry and pomegranate mix. As of Wednesday 97 people have become ill in eight states including California. About half of those affected have been hospitalized. There have been no deaths. The berry and pomegranate mix is sold at both Costco and Harris Teeter, though all the affected people who recall eating the berry mix bought it at Costco.

The product has obviously been removed from store shelves. If you have any, discard it immediately. If you have eaten this product in the past two weeks and have never been vaccinated against hepatitis A, contact your doctor immediately. Vaccination may lower your chance of becoming ill.

I’ve written previously about food-borne illness, about the lack of evidence that anti-oxidants have health benefits, and about the lack of evidence that organic food is healthier than food grown with industrial fertilizer and pesticides. This is an unfortunate story in which these topics intersect. The recent media coverage of the outbreak included an interview with the wife of one of the people sickened with hepatitis A. She expressed surprise that organic food could become contaminated. But there has never been any suggestion that organic food is less likely to bear infectious diseases than food grown with pesticides. Even organic food producers have never made such a claim. If anything, the withholding of industrial fertilizers may increase the likelihood of food contamination if animal waste is used instead and if it is not cleaned off the food.

So please wash all uncooked fruits and vegetables before eating them, even frozen produce. Please wash your hands after using the bathroom. And please feel free to buy organic food because you think it tastes better, or because you’d like to spend more money on food, or because you know it will impress the intriguing hipster checking out your shopping cart. But don’t do it for health benefits.

Learn more:

Multistate outbreak of Hepatitis A infections potentially associated with “Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend” frozen berry and pomegranate mix (CDC)
Advice to Consumers (CDC)
CDC: 87 Now Sickened in Hepatitis A Outbreak (WebMD)
Hepatitis A victim shocked organic berries almost led to liver transplant (CBS News)
Hepatitis A (review article by the Mayo Clinic)