Tainted berries prompt call for inoculations Shipments from Mexico linked to hepatitis A


WASHINGTON -- Strawberries imported from Mexico and processed in California have caused 153 cases of hepatitis A infection among schoolchildren and teachers in Michigan, federal health officials said yesterday.

Thousands more children in five other states, Arizona, California, Georgia, Iowa and Tennessee, may also be at risk, and they are being advised to get gamma globulin shots to help prevent the viral liver ailment, which generally causes a mild illness, the health officials said at a news conference.

The officials sought to reassure the public about any concern over the risk of contracting hepatitis infection from strawberries, saying that no other clusters of cases had been found and that fresh strawberries were not implicated. The source of the contamination is not yet known.

The contaminated strawberries were served as part of the school lunch program conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Inclusion of foreign food products in the school lunch program is illegal. All suppliers are required to certify in writing that the product is domestic, and a false statement is a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison and substantial fines.

The strawberries were frozen and processed by Andrew & Williamson Sales of San Diego, health officials said. It is a division of Epitope Inc. of Beaverton, Ore.

Soon after federal officials said the Agriculture Department's inspector general would investigate how the company had sold foreign produce as domestic, Epitope said that Andrew & Williamson had mislabeled some strawberries. Epitope also said had accepted the resignation of Fred L. Williamson, president and chief executive officer of Andrew & Williamson.

Andrew & Williamson received and processed at least 1 million pounds of strawberries on three days in 1996, the Food and Drug Administration said, and less than half went to the lunch program.

The food processor and federal health officials told distributors to destroy any remaining strawberries from the lots implicated in the Michigan outbreak. But Dr. Michael Friedman, the FDA's principal deputy commissioner, said his agency had yet to determine what proportion of the original shipment had been consumed or destroyed and what remained.

Hepatitis A, generally milder than other types of viral hepatitis, can cause fever, fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain and dark urine. Inflammation of the liver can cause the eyes and skin to turn yellow from a buildup of bile pigments. The illness usually lasts one to two weeks, though it can be longer in severe cases. Death occurs in about one in 1,000 cases.

The virus is often transmitted orally from contamination of food and water through human waste.

In Mexico, Israel Camacho, assistant secretary of agriculture for Baja California state, where the strawberries were grown, said he did not think irrigation water was the source of the contamination.

"It is more likely that the strawberries were contaminated during processing and packing rather than during cultivation," he said.

Pub Date: 4/03/97

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