It’s been nearly two weeks since Canadian Costco customers in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador learned the bag of Nature’s Touch Organic Berry Cherry Blend frozen fruit lying in their freezer might contain the hepatitis A virus (nothing like a hep A smoothie!). Now the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is warning Costco customers in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan that their Organic by Nature frozen organic sweet peas may be contaminated with listeria. According to Consumerist, a notice from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says the CRF Frozen Foods recall lists 15 types of frozen vegetables sold at Costco and Meijer stores in the United States and Canada.
The first of these two recalls is shocking since people who consumed the berries are now at risk of contracting hepatitis A, a potentially serious form of liver disease. Making matters worse, some of the berries may have been distributed in free food samples distributed at Costco. I nearly bought that bag of berries but instead chose a cheaper bag of blueberries, supposedly from Canada. I can understand why people thought the berry blend was safe. After all it’s labeled Canada Organic. I was left with the impression it was an all-Canadian product.
Apparently this is not the case. It seems some or perhaps all the berries in the blend came from a country or countries where either the water used to clean them contained sewage or the workers handling the berries weren’t washing their hands properly after using the bathroom since the virus is found only in the stools (feces) of infected people. Costco has phoned customers who purchased the Organic Berry Cherry Blend to offer them free vaccinations for hepatitis A since being vaccinated within two weeks can prevent the onset of symptoms. People were using the frozen berries in smoothies and since the berries weren’t cooked, they ingested the virus when they drank it. The Government of Canada’s advisory notes:
Food contaminated with Hepatitis A virus may not look or smell spoiled. Consumption of food contaminated with this virus may cause hepatitis and produce a self-limited disease that does not result in chronic infection or chronic liver disease. The illness is usually mild and starts about 15 to 50 days after the contaminated food is eaten. It generally goes away by itself in a week or two, although it can last up to 6 months in some people. It can cause inflammation of the liver, and symptoms may include fever, low appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches, and yellowing in the whites of the eyes and the skin (jaundice).
In countries where hepatitis A is prevalent, people have antibodies to the disease but many Canadians lack antibodies. While most people who get exposed won’t get a chronic infection or chronic liver disease, the Mayo Clinic says in rare cases hepatitis A can cause a sudden loss of liver function, especially in older adults or people with chronic liver disease.
As for listeria, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, it can lead to “a rare but serious disease called listeriosis.” The agency points out “food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes may not look or smell spoiled but can still make you sick. Symptoms can include vomiting, nausea, persistent fever, muscle aches, severe headache and neck stiffness.”
Those at higher risk include pregnant women, the elderly and individuals with weakened immune systems and in serious cases, listeriosis can lead to brain infection and even death, the agency warns.
A Google search shows similar recalls for organic products sold at Costco’s Canadian stores. For example, in 2013 at least 1,200 Costco customers, mostly from British Columbia and Alberta, bought a frozen berry blend linked to a hepatitis A outbreak in eight U.S. states.
Even worse, some of these products sport labels that offer consumers an impression the product is sanctioned and safe. As you can see in the image of the Nature’s Touch Berry Cherry Blend above, the packaging includes a Canada Organic Logo and a label indicating the product was verified by the Non-GMO Project. The Organic by Nature frozen sweet peas are supposedly USDA organic.
What you can do
- Know who you’re buying from. If you’re going to shop at Costco or a big supermarket, research companies and find out where exactly the food is coming from. Phone the company whose name appears on the bag and ask about sourcing. Have them list their suppliers and tell you what countries grew your food. That way you’re aware of the risk. Or if you’re going to gamble on a frozen berry mix, don’t use it for smoothies but turn it into jam so you kill any virus lurking in the bag.
- Don’t trust labels. It seems with these organic fruit blends the Canada Organic logo only refers to the Canadian component of the mix. The Non-GMO Project verified label suggests it’s non-GMO but this doesn’t guarantee the food’s safety. It’s sad that you have be skeptical about the labeling but based on these recent recalls the labels means nothing. Unless rules are tightened around food safety, an unlikely scenario in this time of global trade, you can’t be sure of anything in the global supply network.
- A better approach to buying organic is to buy locally from small, independent stores and if possible, directly from farmers in your area. Even better, grow food yourself. Buy in season and freeze your own berries and vegetables.
That way you won’t stand in line for a “free” vaccine at the pharmacy of your local Costco warehouse worried out of your mind about hep A because you enjoyed a yummy smoothie or feel nauseous with a stiff neck and muscle aches, a headache, fever, and vomiting just because you had a hankering for sweet peas.