Local News

Six States May

Posted April 2, 1997 12:00 a.m. EST

— Schoolchildren in six states may have been exposed to the hepatitis A virus by eating contaminated frozen strawberries that had been shipped as a part of a federal school lunch program.

Beaverton, Ore.-based Epitope Inc. is the parent of the San Diego company that processed and froze the Mexican strawberries.

So far, the only reported illnesses linked to the tainted berries were in Michigan, where about 151 students and teachers have been sickened, apparently after eating strawberries provided at lunch, federal authorities said.

In Los Angeles, up to 9,000 youngsters and adults may have been exposed. School and health officials determined that fruit cups served last week in 18 Los Angeles public schools may have been contaminated with the virus.

As a precaution, California health officials planned to offer protective gamma globulin shots later this week.

``It's not a panic situation,'' said Dr. Shirley Fannin, Los Angeles County's director of disease control programs, noting that there is a 14-day incubation period. ``We're here within a week of consumption. We have another week to plan.''

In Wake County, North Carolina, a huge shipment awaits USDA inspection inside the Child Nutrition Warehouse. Warehouse supervisor Bob Gochnour told WRAL-TV5'sMark Robertsthat, because students are out on spring break, none of the suspicious or tainted berries have yet made their way into schools here.

The main food storage warehouse for other schools in North Carolina is in Butner. There have been no problems yet reported in any part of the state.

Unlike more dangerous forms of the disease, hepatitis A causes a mild liver infection and is spread through uncooked food. Those at risk of more severe symptoms are the elderly, people with weak immune systems and the very young.

For most people, symptoms appear about 28 days after exposure. They include jaundice, fatigue, abdominal discomfort, vomiting, fever and dark urine.

The virus can be transmitted orally or through human waste, often by food handlers with poor personal hygiene, through undercooked shellfish from infected waters or through tainted water or ice.

Gamma globulin is effective before exposure and within two weeks after.

Tom Amontree, communications director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, said Tuesday that 17 states might have been shipped tainted strawberries and were asked to ``put a hold'' on the fruit, which came from the same company.

But today, the agency and the Food and Drug Administration said only six states - Michigan, Arizona, California, Georgia, Iowa and Tennessee - received berries believed linked to the outbreak because all bore the same lot number. Nine other states and the District of Columbia received shipments from the same company but the berries had different lot numbers, the agencies said.

Those states are Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota and Wisconsin.

The California Department of Health Services determined the strawberries were grown in Mexico, then frozen and processed by Andrew and Williamson Sales of San Diego last spring. The agency said the strawberries were shipped for bulk distribution to USDA-sponsored school lunch programs in December.

Ken August, a spokesman for the California Department of Health Services, said that after receiving the frozen strawberries, the L.A. school district sent them on to another company that ``added strawberries and blueberries to the frozen sliced strawberries and made it into the dessert.''

Mary Hagen, manager of investor relations for Epitope Inc. of Beaverton, Ore., the parent of Andrew and Williamson, said today that Epitope isn't sure what caused the problem. Epitope officials are at the San Diego subsidiary today looking into it.

``The problem could have occurred at any number of levels,'' she said. ``It could have been at the growers or in the packaging or in the processing somewhere. The company is looking into everything.''

Efforts are made at the packaging plant to make sure the strawberries are clean, Hagen said.

Epitope recalled 13 lots of frozen berries shipped by Andrew and Williamson early in December 1996, shortly before Epitope acquired the company.

``The health and well-being of the public is Andrew and Williamson's foremost concern,'' Epitope President Adolph J. Ferro said Tuesday in a statement.

Iowa officials warned that about 300 of Iowa's schools may have served the fruit as recently as last week.

In Michigan, 128 cases of hepatitis A have been confirmed in two counties. Bob Howard, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Infectious Diseases, said an investigation has ``strongly implicated'' a single batch of strawberries.

By JANE E. ALLEN,AP Science Writer Copyright ©1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or distributed.