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Fecal Matter and Pomegranate Seeds Linked to Hepatitis A Outbreak in Southwestern US

Jul 08, 2013 04:08 PM EDT
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A multistate outbreak of the hepatitis A virus has been linked to consumption of Turkish-grown pomegranate seeds reportedly tainted with human fecal matter.

People in eight states were confirmed ill with hepatitis A after eating Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend pomegranate seeds, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported 140 confirmed cases of the virus linked to the fruit seeds as of July 3.

The pomegranate seeds were reportedly imported by a company in Turkey, Goknur Foodstuffs Import Export Trading. The most recent data from the CDC indicate the shipment of pomegranate seeds were distributed primarily in the southwestern part of the United States, with confirmed hepatitis illnesses in eight states.

California reported 69 cases, followed by Colorado (26), Arizona (20), Hawaii (8), New Mexico (6), Nevada (6), Utah (3), and Wisconsin (2). The two cases in Wisconsin were reportedly linked to exposure to the pomegranate seeds in California.

Cases of hepatitis A are unusual in the Americas. The virus more commonly circulates around North Africa and the Middle East, according to FoodMate.com, which also reported that the tainted seeds were sold at Costco stores and Harris Teeter Supermarkets, where they were contained in a product marketed as an antioxidant berry blend. Certain lots of the product have been recalled since June.

About 45 percent of the patients were hospitalized for symptoms such as dehydration and abdominal pain, the Wall Street Journal reported, adding that hepatitis A is a rarely fatal strain of the disease.

The outbreak underscores a missed deadline by the Obama administration for issuing congressionally mandated rules on imported foods.

"This outbreak highlights the food safety challenge posed by today's global food system," said Michael R. Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, according to NBC news. "The presence in a single product of multiple ingredients from multiple countries compounds the difficulty of finding the cause of an illness outbreak. The hepatitis A outbreak shows how we have improved our ability to investigate and respond to outbreaks, but also why we are working to build a food safety system that more effectively prevents them."

The FDA proposed a set of guidelines to the White House which would ensure that importers have control over the supply chain bringing food into the United States by allowing the FDA to verify - both in the United States and overseas - that farms and processors complied with standards of cleanliness. However, the current administration has not finished vetting the import guidelines, which were meant to go into effect in January, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Hepatitis A is spread when human feces contaminate food or when an infected food handler prepares food without using proper hygiene. Human feces are expected as the cause of the outbreak, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The disease can cause stomach illness and irritation, as well as fever and jaundice, though not everyone who contracts hepatitis A will show signs of the disease.

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