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It’s been a hectic week for berry farms due to a hepatitis A outbreak from an “Organic Berry Blend” from Costco. Consumers and media jumped on the offending producer, Townsend Farms, claiming that their “Oregon” berries were responsible for the outbreak. An understandable, if incorrect, conclusion if you look at the product label from Townsend pictured on the right. That last little note about working with farmers from “around the world” sounds harmless enough, right?
The truth of the matter is, berries are cheaper in other countries. Getting certified as “Organic” is easier in other countries. Land is cheaper, and labor is cheaper. Townsend Farms probably grows some great berries, and might try to do a darn good job screening where they source their berries when they don’t grow them, but the bottom line is you can’t monitor what is going on in Chile and Turkey. The regulations just aren’t there. As it turns out, almost everything in this berry blend wasn’t from their farm, or Oregon, or even the United States. The hepatitis A turns out to be most likely linked to pomegranate seeds imported from Turkey and used in the blend. This makes even more sense when you take a look at a map showing the prevalence of hepatitis A in countries of the world, courtesy of the CDC:
Elementary, my dear Watson.
Consumers want to pay the least amount of money for the best quality product, but what goes on behind what is slapped on packaging is hidden from us. It sure is great to pay a small amount of money and get a product that is Certified Organic and from an Oregon farm. Oregon berries are some of the best in the world after all. But once we get a little peak into that box, we realize what we thought we were getting was all an illusion. Take a quote from this article about a California woman affected by the outbreak:
Simon said that it’s a common misconception that healthy and organic food products are somehow safer than other food items. “Organic does not equal safe,” he said. “We see this all the time.”
Or this quote from an article about Geoff Soza, another person affected:
But the packaging convinced the Sozas the fruit was all-American because it bears the slogans “Grower. Processor. Distributor.” and “Field to Farm to Family, since 1906.”
“It was our distinct impression that these are raised under U.S. standards, especially organic food standards,” Rita Soza said.
Especially with produce, knowing where the stuff you are eating is from is important. Next time you go out and buy some frozen berries, look at the packaging and ask yourself if you know where they were actually grown. If you can say yes, and you still feel like they are quality berries, stock up! They might be harder to find than you think. If you are unsure about it, then ask the company! Even the lack of an answer tells you all you need to know.
Sometimes when you take a closer look, everything is not as it seems.
On a final serious note, if you have consumed this product, please contact Townsend Farms for more information on what to do at: 1-800-875-5291 or firstname.lastname@example.org.