During the week of March 31, 2013, the first of what would be at least 162 victims contracted Hepatitis A after eating Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend frozen berries purchased from local Costco stores.
At Costco, the gourmet berry mix sold for about $10.00 per 3 lb bag, and was consumed by health-minded consumers who were often runners, bikers, Pilates and yoga instructors, and other people for whom health and fitness was a priority. The packaging even had a special label with a heart in the center stating it was “Heart Healthy”. See label here.
Over the next few months, more victims would be identified across 10 states. Outbreak onset graph.
The California Department of Public Health was one of the first to identify the outbreak, with dozens of cases being investigated state-wide. California officials warned consumers on May 31, 2013, not to eat Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend frozen berries. California issues warning.
Soon thereafter, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also became involved and confirmed that the outbreak had originated with Townsend Farms, Inc., a corporation headquartered in Fairview, Oregon. As the outbreak spread, the CDC also conducted further testing on a group of 117 identified victims, finding that the outbreak strain of Hepatitis A Virus (HAV) belonged to genotype 1B, a subtype rarely seen in the United States, but common to North Africa and the Middle East. FDA report.
During the investigation, and with the help of Townsend Farms’ shipping documentation, investigators were able to confirm that the HAV did come from the northern Middle East. Investigators traced the HAV to pomegranate seeds sold by a Turkish company, Goknur Foodstuffs Import Export Trading and Production, Co.
According to Townsend Farms, “we know exactly where every berry originates, and we ensure our consumers can as well. We were early adopters of the Produce Traceability Initiative. Every package of our fruit, whether Private Label or Townsend Farms, fresh or frozen, contains a number that points to the farm on which it was grown. We do everything we can to prevent issues from the source. But if a problem ever does arise, it can be traced and resolved immediately.” Townsend Farms – Traceability
Townsend Farms, for its part, initialed a partial recall on June 3rd of some of its Organic Antioxidant Blend frozen berries, specifically the 3 lb. bag and UPC 0 78414 40444 8 with a “BEST BY” code of T012415 – T053115 on the back of the package. On June 28, 2013, Townsend Farms expanded the recall to include all Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend berries, in 3 lb bags, with a UPC number of 0 78414 40444 8. Costco also pulled the products and began a massive effort to contact the many thousands of potential victims.
By September 20, 2013, 162 people were confirmed to have contracted Hepatitis A from consuming Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend berries. The confirmed victims reside in Arizona (23), California (79), Colorado (28), Hawaii (8), New Hampshire (1), New Jersey (1), New Mexico (11), Nevada (6), Utah (3), and Wisconsin (2). Ron Simon & Associates represents numerous victims in each of the states most impacted by this outbreak.
Ron Simon, one of the nation’s leading food poisoning lawyers, has already filed five lawsuits in California against Townsend Farms, its suppliers, and distributors stemming from the outbreak. He is currently engaged in discovery with multiple defendants to determine how and why the contaminated berries made it to the marketplace without first being tested for Hepatitis A.
According to Ron Simon, “Townsend Farms says it is committed to safety,” pointing to the company website which states “at Townsend Farms our customers are an extension of our family and we take food safety very seriously. Our farm as well as our affiliate source farms all utilize Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) following stringent safety strategies to prevent and reduce the risk of microbial contamination.” Townsend Farm Webpage “If that is true,” Simon states, “its time for the company to step forward and compensate the victims, many of whom have gone from being well-trained, competitive athletes to people struggling to get out of bed. All of our clients have suffered debilitating fatigue, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. In addition, many have incurred significant medical expenses and lost wages. Some have lost their jobs because their condition prevented them from returning to work.”
The cases represented by Mr. Simon are currently scheduled for mediation in Los Angeles, California on May 1-2, 2014.