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I Got Lunch at Whole Foods and Now I Need to Get Tested for Hepatitis

The Detroit Health Department recently announced it’s investigating a Whole Foods location over two cases of hepatitis linked its prepared food department.

by Tom Perkins
Oct 26 2016, 8:00pm

During research for a recent MUNCHIES piece on the inhumane treatment of organic chickens and livestock, I was horrified and pissed to learn that the company from which I often bought my organic eggs is among the worst offenders.

In Detroit, there's one grocery store that offers eggs from verifiably humane and responsible farms: Whole Foods. So I started shopping there.

Aside from traceability, the store is known for its prepared food, and so, in addition to eggs, I took home 1.5 pounds of blackened chicken salad from the deli, ciabatta from the bakery, and several hot bar dishes.

And now I have to get tested for hepatitis A.

On Thursday, the Detroit Health Department (DHD) announced it's investigating the store over two cases of hepatitis linked its prepared food department.

Whole Foods spokesperson Allison Phelps told MUNCHIES a "prepared food runner" who stocks pre-prepared items on the floor is infected with the virus, as is a customer. The employee first informed Whole Foods, which Phelps says immediately reviewed its food safety logs and contacted the DHD.

Whole Foods then learned from the DHD that a customer who ate the store's prepared food had also contracted the virus. The prepared foods department includes the deli, pizzeria, hot bar, bakery, and other items that are either made onsite or at a Whole Foods facility.

Anyone who ate prepared food between October 6 and October 12 is advised by the DHD to seek preventative treatment or be tested for hepatitis. I purchased my blackened chicken salad and other prepared food at the end of the day on October 5, and, at my doctor's recommendation, am headed for a blood draw.

According to the DHD's website, hepatitis A is "usually spread when a person ingests fecal matter—even in microscopic amounts—from contact with objects, food, or drinks contaminated by the feces, or stool, of an infected person," though it's not known how either of those involved with the Whole Foods cases caught the disease, Phelps says.

The DHD declined to answer specific questions, but in a statement said, "There remains little reason to believe that there will be more cases, as Whole Foods Market in Detroit was found to be following food safety protocol appropriately. However, because Hepatitis A can have a long incubation period, we will remain vigilant for several weeks following the initial case."

Still, the symptom list—nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, dark urine, clay-colored feces, jaundice, fatigue, and fever—is enough to convince one to exercise caution. Symptoms can be mild but last for weeks, or drive one into to the bathroom for hours on end and persist for months. It's also possible to be infected and not know, and the vast majority of cases clear without long-term damage, according to the DHD site.

Phelps stressed that the food runner is not involved in preparing the food, and the DHD has told other outlets that it's still unclear whether the two cases are connected.

"Just out of caution we are alerting the public. We don't want people to panic. We don't want people to feel uneasy or be unaware of this," Phelps said. "As soon as we heard about it, we contacted the Health Department and began reviewing our food safety logs. The Health Department said we have done everything right before and after, so there's no alarm to be raised about foods safety and cleanliness of the store."

That may be true, but this isn't a totally isolated incident for the company. Over the last year, inspectors' discovery of listeria in a food prep facility prompted a large recall of curry chicken salad sold in Whole Foods' northeast region. In a separate incident at another food prep facility, FDA inspectors found water from a condenser dripping in and around prepared food.

But, to be fair, Whole Foods is hardly alone when it comes to hepatitis A scares. In recent months, infected scallops served in several restaurants sickened more than 200 people, and 51 people became ill after consuming hepatitis-infected smoothies in Virginia. Still, it's a real bummer that a desire to buy ethically produced eggs led to a hepatitis check.