Food regulators in the US and Canada are investigating an outbreak of hepatitis A that could be linked to fresh organic strawberries.
The fruits were sold under the FreshKampo and HEB brand names.
The product was available at various US retailers, including Aldi, Kroger, Safeway, Walmart and Trader Joe’s, between March 5 and April 25.
In the U.S17 people have gotten sick: 15 in California and one in Minnesota and one in North Dakota, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Twelve of those who fell ill were hospitalized.
In Canadastrawberries were sold in Alberta and Saskatchewan between March 5 and 9.
Ten cases and four hospitalizations have been reported in both provinces, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
FreshKampo, the Mexico-based company that grows the strawberries, said it is working with regulators to uncover the source of the problem.
How are strawberries contaminated with hepatitis A?
The berries are a common conduit for viruses because they are so delicate that they can only be harvested by hand, according to the news outlet Live Science.
The virus is usually transmitted through the fecal-oral route, which means that a person somehow ingests contaminated faces of an infected person.
If workers haven’t washed their hands properly after using the restroom, they could transfer the virus to fruit.
This is a higher risk in parts of the world where hepatitis A is more common.
Another way strawberries can become contaminated is if the water used to irrigate them has become contaminated with raw sewage, which can transmit the virus.
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The virus may not be easily removed because there are nooks and crannies where particles can hide.
FreshKampo said the potentially affected strawberries had labels that read “Product of Mexico” or “Distributed by Meridien Foods.”
HEB, a Texas supermarket chain, said it has not received or sold any arranged strawberries from the supplier since April 16.
The retailer said that anyone who still has the strawberries should throw them away or return them to the store where they were purchased.
Tips for consumers
Hepatitis A is a virus that can cause liver disease and, in rare cases, liver failure and death.
People can get sick 15 to 50 days after eating or drinking contaminated food or water.
Symptoms include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and jaundice.
Consumers who have not been vaccinated against hepatitis A and have eaten potentially affected berries in the past two weeks should immediately speak to a doctor, the FDA said.
Although strawberries haven’t been on sale for a long time, people were advised to check any they might have frozen for later use.