Egypt’s reaction to the Hepatitis A outbreak in the United States sourced to frozen strawberries exported from the Middle East nation may not be any more meaningful than its response to Europe’s massive 2011 E. coli outbreak.
This time, Egypt’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment said that frozen strawberries originating from the country are, based on sampling, Hepatitis-free. Said to be the world’s fourth-largest strawberry producer, Egypt has been working on that answer since August.
With its strawberry production pegged at $330 million, Egypt was granted access to the U.S. market in February 2013. And when the Hepatitis A outbreak began last summer, Egypt’s Union of Producers and Exporters declined to take responsibility.
In 2011, Egypt was a focus of the epidemiological investigation because the fenugreek seeds still thought to be the most likely source of the rare E. coli outbreak were imported into Germany from there.
But when Europe’s top food safety laboratory said it found the infected shipment of Egyptian fenugreek seeds that killed 50 people, Agriculture Minister Ayman Abu-Hadid said Egypt had nothing to do with it and instead blamed Israel.
Europe’s massive E. coli outbreak did have the misfortune of occurring right after Egypt was roiling as its government was upended in the Arab Spring. It meant, according to some, that the fenugreek seed investigation ended prematurely as theory.
This time, Egypt’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment says it is tightening controls on frozen strawberries with an emphasis on preventing the entry of contaminated products. U.S investigators believe the Tropical Smoothie Café chain was the only U.S. business to import these particular Hep A-tainted frozen strawberries.
The latest report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has 131 Hep A victims due to the tainted berries through Sept. 29. And the Virginia Department of Health says 107 of those positive for the virus are residents of the Old Dominion, where the most Tropical Smoothie outlets are located.
Other victims are scattered across seven additional states. As of Sept. 29, about 40 percent, or 52 people, have required hospitalization. Further updates are expected this week.
The outbreak strain of Hepatitis A was identified previously in Egyptian strawberries. Officials from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are reportedly in communication with their Egyptian counterparts, but how far that goes is not known. The Food Safety Modernization Act promises to hold foreign and domestic producers to the same standards.
When fresh produce is responsible for an outbreak in the U.S., FDA investigations are known for getting down to the specific “farm, field, and row.” Egypt claims it did some sampling and has issued the “all clear.”
And Egypt’s export of 40 million tons of fresh and frozen strawberries to 30 different countries, including the U.S., will continue.