In the past week, you may have seen headlines about a frozen fruit mix that’s been linked to a Hepatitis A outbreak. It’s great that the news has spread so quickly, and by all means, follow the CDC advice if you think you’ve eaten this product.
The headlines keep making me cringe, though, and not because I’ve been whipping up hepatitis smoothies. (I haven’t.) The headlines I’ve seen circulating widely all contain the word “berry” or “berries” and most contain “Oregon” and/or “farm” or “producer.”
Except it seems the illness is not associated with berries, a farm, or food grown in Oregon.
In actuality, the ongoing investigation has found an association between the cases of hepatitis and consumption of a frozen so-called berry mix that contains pomegranate seeds from Turkey and berries from a few other countries. The company that produces this mix is based in Oregon and still operates a farm, but they’ve grown from being what we think of as a farm (plot of land in one region on which people produce food) to a larger company that sells food from their farm and from farms and companies around the world. (From their website, “We’ve expanded from our Columbia Gorge land to encompass like-minded family farms across the U.S. and around the world…”)
They sell other frozen berry products, but only the product containing pomegranate seeds has been associated with the outbreak. Currently it seems the virus is associated with the pomegranate seeds. The strain of hepatitis A associated with this product is found not in Oregon, but in the Middle East and North Africa.
Here are a few sample headlines from the week:
Seattle Times: Berries blamed For California man’s Hepatitis A
Huffington Post: Hepatitis A Outbreak Linked to Oregon Berry Farm
If you skim headlines, or if you read the headline before the article, the words stick with you. It’s not particularly helpful to Oregon farmers or Northwest berry producers if the words that stick alongside hepatitis are Oregon, berry, and farm. I envision people going to their farmers markets this summer and asking berry growers whether the berries have hepatitis. I envision all the raspberries and blackberries and marionberries rolling their collective little eyes.
Preliminary results suggest the Oregon berries are innocent.
Hepatitis is one of many illnesses that’s typically spread when someone with the disease touches food without washing their hands first. The more people handle food between the plant and the plate, the higher likelihood of contagion.
That means any handling along the chain –– picking, handling, packing, packaging, cooking, etc –– may increase risk for disease. This means hand washing and food service gloves and vaccination are all pretty good ideas. But it also means that the fewer people handle a food, and the fewer people eat food from any one source, the lower and smaller the public health risk. Another point for food from small farms.
So I’m not concerned with Oregon berries. (Although since I’m in French Guiana right now –– in case you’re wondering why I haven’t posted in ages –– I’m very concerned that I won’t get to eat any berries in the immediate future.) I’m more concerned that our food system operates on the kind of scale where what may have been exposure to one source of disease may have led to at least 61 cases in seven states. And I’m even more concerned that when the problem comes from large scale distribution and very non-local food, we’re still thoughtlessly producing and reading headlines that give the impression a regional farm is to blame.
That’s bad for local food systems, it’s bad for farmers, and it’s bad for a system that makes food recalls and outbreak management so much easier and more affordable for large companies than small producers.