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Frozen fruit is making headlines lately, but for all the wrong reasons. Two different foodborne illnesses have been connected to these otherwise healthy products from your grocer’s freezer.
For months now, the FDA has been investigating an outbreak of hepatitis A infections, linked to frozen organic strawberries imported from Mexico. The virus sickened at least nine people this past spring, with three requiring hospitalization, according to the FDA. Thankfully, no further illnesses have been reported since April.
In June, the Willamette Valley Fruit Co. of Salem, Ore., became the fourth company to voluntarily recall various frozen fruit products containing strawberries as result of the federal probe. The highly publicized recalls have affected many of America’s most popular grocery stores, including Costco, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Aldi, H-E-B, and Meijer.
Meanwhile, frozen fruit is also the subject of another, unrelated round of recalls. On June 21, Sunrise Growers Inc., of Minneapolis, Minn., announced it would pull several frozen fruit products from Walmart, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Target, Aldi, and other stores, because of concerns about pineapples potentially contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. No illnesses have been reported so far in that case, per FDA.
Amid all this unsettling news, you might think it’s wise to steer clear of the frozen fruit aisle for a while. But, is this all just a coincidence? Or, is frozen fruit facing a major food-safety problem? Here’s what you need to know.
How concerned should you be about foodborne illnesses?
About one in six Americans get sick from a foodborne illness every year. With the speed of information that is communicated to consumers these days, it may appear as if there is a serious issue with the food supply, but in reality the United States has a very safe food supply with many check points to ensure consumer safety.
Currently, the U.S. ranks 13th out of 131 countries listed among The Economist‘s Global Food Security Index, which considers affordability, availability, quality, safety, and sustainability and adaptation of food around the world. The country has moved up 25 positions specifically for food safety indicators since 2012.
Furthermore, since 2011’s Food Safety Modernization Act, there has been drastic improvement on how the food supply is regulated. Advanced technology has also been developed to help reduce foodborne illness cases, such as the FDA’s GemoneTrakr Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) Network. The technology helps the agency quickly respond to outbreaks and also allows for surveillance of foodborne pathogens. Since adopting WGS for Listeria outbreaks, the average number of Listeria illnesses per outbreak has dropped by 50%.
Interestingly, the most common cause of food recalls in recent years is not foodborne illness, but undeclared allergens, which accounted for 43.5% of all recalls in 2022, according to a recent analysis of FDA data by the Sedgwick organization.
Which foodborne illnesses have been linked to frozen fruit?
The frozen fruits recalled in these cases were due to hepatitis A, which is a virus, and Listeria Monocytogenes, which is a bacterium.
Hepatitis A tends to be found in contaminated water supplies, so it’s likely the water used to grow those fruits isn’t treated or monitored properly. With Listeria Monocytogenes, the bacterium tends to be picked up within the manufacturing facilities. These instances are not related, they just happened to both occur with frozen fruit.
Hepatitis A can lead to inflammation of the liver. Usually it is a short-term issue, but about 5% of cases can progress to cirrhosis and liver failure. The symptoms of hepatitis A can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to more serious issues lasting several months. Typically symptoms occur 15 to 50 days after exposure. Symptoms include fatigue, abdominal pain, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), abnormal liver tests, dark urine, and pale stool.
Listeria monocytogenes is a disease-causing bacteria. If you eat food contaminated with Listeria, you may develop an illness called listeriosis. There are a range of symptoms for this foodborne illness and depending on the severity, they can last for day to several weeks. Mild symptoms may include fever, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. More severe symptoms of the illness include headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions. Symptoms start to show up within a few hours or as long as two to three days after eating food contaminated with the bacteria. More severe symptoms can appear between three days and three months after consuming the tainted food.
Folks with weaker immune systems, including older adults, children under age five, pregnant and nursing women, those taking medication, and those with a compromised immune system, are the most vulnerable to becoming sick with listeriosis.
So, Is Frozen Fruit Safe to Eat?
Absolutely! Frozen fruit is both healthy and safe to eat. With 80% of Americans not meeting the recommended daily fruit intake, it’s really important to consume these foods, whether they’re fresh, frozen, or canned.
What you do want to avoid is purchasing or consuming the recalled products. The FDA has provided specific stores, lot numbers, and best by dates so you can steer clear of products affected by the hepatitis A recall and Listeria Monocytogenes recall. Other packages of frozen fruit, even if manufactured by the same company or sold at the recalled stores, have not been affected and are safe to eat.
However, if you find any of the recalled products in your freezer, you should do the following:
- Do not cook or eat the recalled products. Cooking doesn’t necessarily destroy all the harmful microorganisms, especially hepatitis A. The product should be thrown out or returned to the store for a refund.
- If you purchased the recalled frozen fruit and ate them within the past 2 weeks and have not been vaccinated against hepatitis A, call your healthcare provider immediately.
- If you think you have symptoms of hepatitis A or listeriosis (both listed above) after eating frozen recalled fruit, contact your health provider as soon as possible.