This story is a great example of government and industry groups acting quickly and working together to protect human health. It began when a worker in New Zealand packing apples and peaches for sale was found to be infected with hepatitis A virus. It is the sort of event that happens from time to time, and we posted about a similar case at arestaurant here in the US not long ago.
We often hear about food handlers in conjunction with these outbreaks. While food handlers may not be at a higher risk of contracting the virus because of their occupation, what they do can impact so many people that public health groups pay special attention when a case is reported.
Within a couple of days of hearing of the incident and investigating to learn the specifics, the Ministry for Primary Industries issued a warning on Royal Gala and New Zealand Beauty apples and Golden Queen peaches shipped from the affected pack house and offered for sale from February 27th through March 13th. The fruit only went to grocery stores in New Zealand, which have since pulled the product, but an estimated 1400 cartons had already been purchased by the public.
In this case, the risk of infection from eating the fruit is low, particularly since the worker would have been wearing gloves, but the Ministry for Primary Industries followed protocol to issue the warning. Health officials are suggesting consumers either cook the fruit thoroughly or discard it, as the virus can persist on produce for prolonged periods, despite washing. They are also urging people to practice good personal hygiene as a means to prevent possible spread, and contact their physicians or a health hotline if they begin feeling sick.
No cases have been reported so far, yet since the virus often has a month-long incubation period, it may be too soon to tell. Hepatitis A virus is particularly sneaky because in addition to the long incubation period, it can cause signs that can be very mild and generic, such as fever, tiredness, and an upset stomach. More tell-tale signs include jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), pale stools, and abdominal pain. The CDC has put together a helpful factsheetfor the disease, if you want to learn more.