Chow Line: FDA warns of Hepatitis A with certain frozen blackberries

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I just heard the recent health warning advising people about the concern with a brand of frozen blackberries and hepatitis A. How is it possible that frozen berries could be contaminated with the virus?

Hepatitis A virus is a highly contagious virus that infects a person’s liver. It can be easily spread through close contact with a person who has hepatitis A or by eating food prepared by a person with hepatitis A.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a recent warning alerting consumers that some frozen blackberries branded by the Kroger Co. as “Private Selection” were found to be contaminated with the hepatitis A virus.

The Kroger Co. issued a recall on June 7 for the following Private Selection items:

  • Frozen Triple Berry Medley, 48-ounce packages (UPC 0001111079120 ), with a best-by date of July 7, 2020.
  • Frozen Triple Berry Medley, 16-ounce packages (UPC 0001111087808), with a best-by date of June 6, 2020.
  • Frozen Blackberries, 16-ounce packages (UPC 0001111087809), with a best-by date of July 7, 2020.

The FDA said that the contamination was discovered as a part of its ongoing frozen berry sampling assignment.

As a result, the government agency is advising consumers, “not to eat and to throw away the identified frozen blackberry products purchased from Kroger and other retail locations packaged under Kroger’s Private Selection brand.” 

So how is it possible for the berries to be contaminated with hepatitis A?

The virus is found in the stool and blood of people who are infected. It’s spread through person-to-person contact or when someone ingests food or drinks contaminated by the stool of an infected person, according to the Ohio Department of Health. 

Food and beverages can become contaminated with the hepatitis A virus when microscopic amounts of feces are transferred from an infected person’s hands to the food or beverages. 

Freezing does not destroy the hepatitis A virus, said Sanja Ilic, the state food safety specialist for Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES). 

“In addition, unlike other frozen produce that is blanched by food companies prior to freezing, berries cannot be treated due to their gentle texture,” she said.   

Hepatitis A can be prevented through vaccination and by practicing good hand-washing hygiene, such as by thoroughly washing hands after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and before preparing or eating food, the FDA said. 

Prevention is the key, considering that contamination of food with the hepatitis A virus can happen at any point: growing, harvesting, processing, handling, and even after cooking, the FDA said. 

Additionally, the virus can survive on surfaces for prolonged periods of time, Ilic said.

Symptoms of hepatitis A can include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, jaundice, fatigue, fever, a loss of appetite, joint pain, dark urine, and gray stool. These symptoms can develop two to six weeks after the infection occurs. During that time, infected people can spread the virus to others without realizing they themselves are ill.

Ohio is now in the midst of a statewide community outbreak of hepatitis A, the Ohio Department of Health said. As of June 10, the state health agency said there have been 3,039 cases reported statewide, resulting in 1,821 hospitalizations and 10 deaths.

The agency also said outbreaks of hepatitis A are occurring in several states across the nation, including Ohio’s neighboring states of Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, and West Virginia. 

Considering that there were 10,582 confirmed hepatitis A cases last year nationwide—and 19,723 cases and 189 deaths in 22 states since 2016—it is worth considering a vaccine, Ilic said.

“There are two options available to the public for hepatitis A vaccine administration, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” she said. “Those are the hepatitis A vaccine, and a combination vaccine against both the hepatitis A and hepatitis B viruses called ‘TWINRIX’ for consumers that are at high risk.” 

People who think they’re at risk for hepatitis A infection can contact their healthcare provider or their local health department for information about vaccination, Ilic said.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor:This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, state food safety specialist for OSU Extension.

For more information contact: 
Tracy Turner
614-688-1067
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Sanja Ilic
OSU Extension, Food Safety