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Feds’ updates on strawberry Hep A outbreak thin; 3 more sick

Thursday, October 20, 2016 22:17
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Federal officials reported their investigations are ongoing into a Hepatitis A outbreak linked to frozen Egyptian strawberries served in smoothies, with 134 people now sickened and little if any progress made on the international aspects of the situation.

Field workers harvest strawberries in Egypt. Strawberry exports are heavily promoted on the Egyptian government’s website.

The 134 case count as of Oct. 17, and reported Oct. 20 by the Centers for Disease Control, spans nine states. Seventy percent, or 52 of the sick people have had symptoms so serious they required hospitalized. Virginia has been hardest hit, with 107 people confirmed sick.

“In interviews, nearly all ill people interviewed reported drinking smoothies containing strawberries at Tropical Smoothie Café locations prior to Aug. 8 in a limited geographical area, including Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia,” according to the CDC update.

Food and Drug Administration investigators, working with the CDC and state health officials have been using the working theory that the Hepatitis A came from frozen strawberries from Egypt. However, Egyptian government officials say they’ve checked and the strawberries produced in their country are not problematic.

“The FDA’s preliminary traceback investigation indicates that the strawberries served in Tropical Smoothie Café locations where ill people reported drinking smoothies were imported from Egypt,” the FDA reported again Thursday in its outbreak investigation update.

“The FDA’s investigation into the source and distribution of the strawberries is ongoing; and the agency has been in touch with the Egyptian International Health Regulations National Focal Point to discuss the investigation.

“FDA is working to identify other parts of the relevant supply chain and will take appropriate action as necessary. However, FDA is prohibited by law in most situations from releasing publicly certain confidential commercial information about supply chains.The FDA has initiated increased surveillance of imported strawberries and will provide more information as it becomes available.”

Egypt’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment said this past week that frozen strawberries originating from the country are, based on sampling, Hepatitis-free. Said to be the world’s fourth-largest strawberry producer, Egypt has been working on that answer since August.

With its strawberry production pegged at $330 million, Egypt was granted access to the U.S. market in February 2013. And when the Hepatitis A outbreak began last summer, Egypt’s Union of Producers and Exporters declined to take responsibility.

The ministry said it is tightening controls on frozen strawberries with an emphasis on preventing the entry of contaminated products.

Editor’s note: Dan Flynn, editor of Food Safety News, contributed to this report.

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