Boise residents sue company over berries linked to hep A outbreak

jsowell@idahostatesman.comJune 11, 2013 

Hepatitis A Outbreak

Townsend Farms’ Organic Antioxidant Blend has recalled the product.

PROVIDED BY THE FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION VIA AP

BOISE — A Boise couple worried that their unborn baby may have contracted hepatitis A from a tainted frozen berry and pomegranate seed mix filed a class action lawsuit this week against the Oregon company that produced the product.

In the lawsuit filed Monday in Fourth District Court in Boise, Marisa and Michael Berndt claim that Townsend Farms of Fairview, east of Portland, was negligent in failing to ensure that its organic berry mix was safe to eat.

The Berndts said they bought a three-pound bag of the berry mixture at the Boise Costco store on May 14. They received vaccinations June 5, after learning about the possible link to hepatitis A illnesses. Although they have not shown symptoms of the illnesses, they fear their unborn child may have contracted hepatitis.

Townsend Farms referred a reporter to the company's attorney, Bill Garr. He was not immediately available for comment. Last week, he told the Oregonian newspaper in Portland that the "public's safety is Townsend Farms' primary concern right now."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is investigating 99 reported illnesses in eight states — none in Idaho — linked to the Townsend Farms mix, which includes strawberries, raspberries, cherries and pomegranate seeds. Illnesses have been reported in Washington, Utah, Colorado, California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and New Mexico.

The Townsend Farms mix was sold by Costco stores throughout the west and by Harris Teeter Supermarkets in eight eastern states between February and May.

"Costco did an excellent job of notifying customers of their potential exposure to hepatitis A and encouraging them to receive proper treatment to prevent infection," said the couple's Seattle-based attorney William Marler.

Townsend Farms, which the Townsend family has operated since 1906, recalled its product after learning the pomegranate seeds, which came from a producer in Turkey, may be linked to the hepatitis outbreak.

Hepatitis is a liver disease that is spread primarily through food or water contaminated by a stool from an infected person, according to the National Institutes of Health. It can cause swelling of the liver but rarely causes lasting damage. Some people experience flulike symptoms, including fatigue, abdominal pain or jaundice, while others show no symptoms at all, the NIH said. Most people recover on their own after several weeks.

A vaccination can prevent a person from getting sick if given within two weeks of exposure.

The lawsuit, filed by the Seattle law firm Marler Clark and assigned to Judge Mike Wetherell, seeks unspecified damages. The suit says it will ask that class members be compensated for medical expenses, time lost from work and for emotional distress.

The tainted products were sold by Costco stores throughout the West and by Harris Teeter grocery stores in eight eastern states.

Marler Clark estimates that up to 10,000 people could have been exposed to the contaminated product, although its lawsuit only deals with Idaho residents who may have been exposed to the hepatitis A virus.

Marler Clark has filed two lawsuits against Townsend Farms in a pair of California counties on behalf of clients who received shots to prevent Hepatitis A. A Houston-based firm, Simon & Luke, has filed suit in Los Angeles and in Colorado on behalf of clients who came down with hepatitis A after eating the berry mix.

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