California Woman Sues Costco, Berry Farm Over Hepatitis A

ABC News

The organic berries promised "reduced exposure to synthetic pesticides" on Townsend Farms' website, but it's not likely that Lynda Brackenridge -- or 48 other customers -- expected they'd come down with hepatitis A, a highly contagious liver infection, after eating the berries.

Brackenridge, 51, of Lakewood, Calif., sued Townsend Farms, and Costco, where she bought the tainted fruit, over a hepatitis A outbreak linked to frozen organic berries that sickened 49 people in seven states and put 11 of them, including Brackenridge, in the hospital.

"It's very scary that this could happen to anyone," she told KABC, the ABC owned station in Los Angeles, from her quarantined room at Long Beach Memorial Hospital.

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Aches, fatigue and chills began to plague Brackenridge on May 22, after she ate frozen Organic Antioxidant Blend berries grown by Townsend Farms in Oregon, according to the civil complaint filed by her lawyers at Simon and Luke LLC.

Soon, her urine became dark, her skin and eyes yellowed and she began to vomit and dry heave, according to the complaint. After tests showed that Brackenridge had elevated liver enzymes and inflammation, she learned that she had hepatitis A, and would need to be isolated from other patients.

It's not clear when Brackenridge will be released from the hospital, her lawyer, Ron Simon, told ABCNews.com. Although doctors hope she will make a full recovery, "they can't say just yet," Simon said.

Hepatitis A is fatal to one in 200 patients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is usually spread through person-to-person contact when an infected person does not properly wash his or her hands after using the bathroom. It can also be spread through contaminated food, usually in countries with poor sanitation.

This particular strain of hepatitis A is rarely seen in the United States, and is most common in North Africa and the Middle East, according to the CDC's web page dedicated to the outbreak. According to the berry mix label, ingredients came from Argentina, Chile, Turkey and the United States.

The CDC, the Food and Drug Administration and state health departments are still investigating the outbreak. Townsend Farms voluntarily recalled the berry blend on Tuesday, and Costco pulled the berries from shelves and began notifying customers who bought them last Friday, according to CDC and FDA news releases.

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Lynda Brackenridge, of Lakeview, Calif., is one of 49 victims of a hepatitis a outbreak linked to tainted frozen berries. (Credit: Courtesy Simon and Luke LLP)

Since there is no FDA-approved test for hepatitis A on food other than green onions, berries aren't tested for the virus, Craig Wilson, vice president of food safety and quality assurance at Costco, told ABCNews.com. Officials have used the green onion test on the berries in light of the outbreak, but results have been negative. Wilson said he did the same and got the same negative test results.

"Townsend Farms has an excellent record," Wilson said. "Their food safety program plant is very good. That was confirmed by the FDA inspection. They just went through a five-day FDA inspection."

Since Costco suppliers are required to have the ability to trace all their product ingredients, they have now turned their attention to the pomegranate seeds from Turkey that were added to the berry blend, Wilson said. This is because the virus strain that affected two consumers is rare in the Americas but common in the Middle East.

Simon said that it's a common misconception that healthy and organic food products are somehow safer than other food items.

"Organic does not equal safe," he said. "We see this all the time."

In December, an E.coli outbreak was linked to organic spinach after 33 people in five states became sick, according to CDC.

Townsend Farms did not immediately return calls from ABCNews.com seeking comment.

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