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Fresh Thyme hepatitis A outbreak cause

By Rachel Brooks

Contributor | Telegraph Local 

See The New African Living Standard 

The question on healthcare investigators minds this week_what is the source of all these hepatitis A outbreaks? With repeat cases of hepatitis, listeria and other foodborne illness contaminating US groceries and restaurants, the question remains unsolved. Telegraph Local investigated and developed a working theory of the probable source. 

Citing Food Safety News, the cycle may go back even further than the November outbreak for the Midwest region. For those infected by the Fresh Thyme blackberries, the cycle may have jumpstarted in September.  Holiday season cooks would have been thawing frozen berries to use in the Thanksgiving meal. The contaminated berries sold to Fresh Thyme stores from September 9-30. 

Screencapture from Jamie Sherrod of WNEM’s Twitter. Local news sites circulate frequent reports of hepatitis A in Michigan

Citing the Fresh Thyme Distribution Facebook, there are many different supply chains to the distribution center. The drivers are often independent contractors, such as La Harden LLC. out of Chicago, IL, a privately owned company that brought a delivery to the distribution center on September 22. As this is in the September 9-30 time range, that means the blackberries may have been delivered from local greater Chicago farmers. One of the pallet drivers for the center also made backhaul stops to Michigan and Ohio in late July. It is a possibility that the contaminated food was on pallets from these two truck’s deliveries. These drivers are local independent contractors and so it is safe to assume that their deliveries are from local companies. 

We can corroborate this theory.  Fresh Thyme has a strict policy for purchasing local produce. They state on their landing site “with our trusted neighbors and partners in the Midwest, we’re able to offer the freshest and best quality ingredients close to home.”  

Citing the North American Raspberry and Blackberry Association’s private directory, the closest local farms to the Bolingbrook, IL area would be Ellis Family Farms in Benton Harbor, MI, which is a roughly 2-hour drive north of Bolingbrook, IL. The Ellis Family Farms has sold blackberries stated on their site. Their site also infers that their blackberry crop sells out between July_October, the same time range that the distribution center would have been purchasing blackberries. 

It is unclear if the Ellis Family Farms produced or sold any blackberries this season from their public social media releases. We can, however, from the Green City Market profile created for Ellis Farm managers Rene and Bruce Gelder that blackberries are a constant selling item.  

Ellis Family Farms grows or has grown  5 varieties of blackberries and other berries. All 5 of these varieties may have been in the commercial non-organic bundles that were sold to Fresh Thymes markets. Ellis Family farms sells to many Chicago area farmers markets as well as St. Joseph, Michigan as recent as 2015. 

Ellis Family Farms is a fifth-generation fruit grower registered with the Michigan Environmental Assurance Program for agricultural quality, citing their “How We Farm” page. The homestead land and rented land have clay-lined ponds and the farm has a strict water quality policy. So, if the Ellis Family Farm had contaminated blackberry crops this time, how did it happen? How did hepatitis A contagions cross into the blackberries? 

The Ellis Family Farms is in Benton Harbour, MI which is a community of the Berrien County region. In July 2019, Berrien County was forced to close many of its beaches due to an outbreak of E.Coli, citing Herald-Palladium. The E.Coli conditions may have been caused by a local sewer line break in the area at that time. There was also a rash of storms in the region in the summer when various berries would be planted and growing in the soil. 

Screen capture of a map released by WKZO news, 

Citing WKZO news, Kalamazoo, MI, which is roughly an hour away from Benton Harbour, had a pipeline break near its river in September_around the time contaminated berries were sold be Fresh Thyme’s stores. This would have created sewage wash to nearby communities. This would have also washed up in storms. Kalamazoo’s Department of Public Services issued a no-contact advisory for part of the Kalamazoo River after the sanitary sewer release. 

The initial break was near Cameroon St and East Stockbridge Avenue in Kalamazoo, MI in the week of September 10. 

Google maps fair use. This is the general vicinity of the most recent hepatitis A outbreak in the general vicinity of the farms where Fresh Thyme’s blackberries likely sourced from. 

MLive.com cites an outbreak of hepatitis A  in the Southwest Michigan region in the week of June 24, 2019. At least two cases were reported. MLive reports an increased level of hepatitis A infections in this region since 2016. 

It is likely that the Kalamazoo River is the source of the Midwest outbreak of hepatitis and that the infection initially passed from those who suffered the outbreak in June, into the wastewater, and then contaminated public farmer’s markets through the pipeline break. 

Citing Franque Thompson Twitter at Q13Fox. The sewage leak into the Kalamazoo River is a likely cause of the initial blackberry contamination which led to hepatitis A outbreaks from Fresh Thyme’s stores. 

Construction on the sewer line break and the storms themselves would have caused the spread of fecal matter. Fecal matter is the generation point of hepatitis A. So, all berries harvested and sold from Ellis Family Farms that may have crossed with these infected substances could have either been themselves contaminated due to this or could have cross-contaminated the local farmer market’s berry supply. 

The other farm which is the most likely source to Fresh Thyme is Eckert Orchard’s Inc, which is in Bellville, IL. It is 4 hours drive away from the Fresh Thyme distribution center. Eckert Orchard’s also has locations in Millstadt, IL, Grafton, IL, Versailles, KY, and the St. Louis Farmer’s Market. All of the Eckert locations could have been the source of the locally-grown produce that was on the September 9-30 trucks. 

Eckert Orchard’s Inc. is located in Belleville which is a 30-minute drive from Granite City, IL. In August, there was a flash flood in this region. Citing Belleville News_Democrat, there has been a lawsuit filed against the Metro East Sanitary District concerning this flood. The flood situation was called quote “politically motivated” The lawsuit details how Granite City’s sanitation department was negligent in its duties to keep floodwater out of the resident’s homes. Flood water in the 18-mile radius of a local blackberry source farm would have been a likely contamination/cross-contamination point for those blackberries reported delivered to Fresh Thyme Distribution Center by September. 

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