San Diego family sues strawberry grower and distributor linked to hepatitis A outbreak
When the Arthur family of San Diego ate fresh organic strawberries, they never imagined they would get sick. But that’s exactly what happened.
The family of three: David Arthur, Michelle Brown and their 16-year-old daughter, all contracted hepatitis A after eating contaminated berries.
“Fortunately the mother and the daughter, a minor, got less sick," said their attorney, Bill Marler. "The father was so sick he was hospitalized with extremely high liver numbers, which caused the doctors to be monitoring him as to whether or not he might need a liver transplant."
David Arthur is out of the hospital now, but is still suffering the effects of the illness.
"The one thing about hepatitis ... in the best case scenario, it usually takes somebody about a month to recover. If somebody's hospitalized it may take them months to recover." said Marler, who specializes in food-related illnesses. He said there was also a risk of relapse. "So even people who are out of the hospital and are home now aren’t completely out of the woods."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration are investigating the multistate outbreak and have linked it to a grower in Mexico that sells the strawberries under the names FreshKampo and H-E-B Organics. Marler has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Arthur family and others against the Mexican grower and the Fresno-based distributor, Meridian Fine Foods, which owns the brand.
When KPBS talked to Marler, he said 20 people had been hospitalized after eating those two brands of strawberries, and he expected the case count to rise in the United States and Canada.
"Hospitalization means that they’re sick enough that they’re being monitored for liver failure. Liver failure can cause death or, in the best scenario, may well cause you to have a liver transplant," he said, warning that it only takes a small amount of the virus on the food to make people sick. Once food is contaminated, it’s difficult to kill the virus. And even food that is cooked can spread the potentially deadly virus.
"The problem is that it’s contaminated with a human fecal virus, which isn't that pleasant to think about, that can cause extreme illness," he said.
Though many are hesitant to eat strawberries during this outbreak, Marler said it was only linked to the brands tied to the farm in Mexico.
KPBS also spoke with a local strawberry grower about food safety. Robyn Ukegawa is the manager of the Carlsbad Strawberry Company. She said her family farm has been growing strawberries for decades and takes pride in how they’re grown. "We adhere to really strict policies in how they’re grown and especially use clean, fresh water," Ukegawa said.
She also said having families come and pick berries themselves served two purposes: fun and education. "It's really important that people should educate and know where their produce and fruit and vegetables come from and how they’re grown," she said.
Marler echoed the advice about knowing where your food comes from, and said there was something people could do to avoid getting sick: "The good thing is that (Hepatitis A is) the only food-borne illness that is vaccine-preventable."
Marler also said lawsuits aimed at holding companies accountable are the most effective way to prevent future outbreaks.
KPBS reached out to FreshKampo and Meridian Fine Foods. They declined an interview but sent the following statement:
"Our hearts go out to everyone who was affected by the May 2022 Hepatitis A contamination associated with fresh organic strawberries. While it is unclear how or where the contamination may have occurred along the supply chain, this is a terrible situation. With respect to the lawsuit, we, unfortunately, cannot address the specific issues in the case because it is under litigation. But we do look forward to the opportunity to discuss the details in court."
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