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Smoothie Chain Blamed for Hep A Outbreak

FAIRFAX, Va. (CN) — A class action claims Tropical Smoothie Cafe used contaminated strawberries that led to a widespread hepatitis A outbreak across six states.

The 23-year old restaurant chain, with roughly 500 locations in 40 states, imported the tainted strawberries from Egypt.

According to a video statement from Tropical Smoothie Cafe CEO Mike Rotondo released on the company's website, the Virginia Department of Health contacted the smoothie purveyor on Aug. 5, informing it of the "potential link between hepatitis A cases and frozen strawberries from Egypt."

The class-action lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Fairfax County Circuit Court and named 29 separate defendants with Tropical Smoothie franchise locations scattered throughout Virginia.

Cities impacted by the contamination include Fredericksburg, Alexandria, Centreville, Chesapeake, Yorktown, Mechanicsville, Falls Church, Haymarket, Glen Allen, Richmond, Virginia Beach, Stafford and Herndon.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Virginia was the most impacted state, with 44 confirmed cases of consumers contracting hepatitis A.

Infections were also reported in Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, Oregon and Wisconsin. No franchises in those locations were named in the lawsuit.

The apparent irony of the company's slogan, "Eat Better, Feel Better," was not lost on Rotondo, who told consumers that the slogan "is not just's a promise and it's something that I believe in very dearly."

"While recently some strawberries have made their way into our supply chain that could challenge the concept, I sincerely apologize for any issues that may have caused for any of our customers," Rotondo said.

Hepatitis A can spread from person-to-person and is usually transmitted via the fecal-oral route. It is most commonly communicated through contaminated food that comes into contact with water carrying the disease.

Those who have been exposed to the disease have been urged to by the CDC to receive a vaccine or immune globulin injection within two weeks of exposure.

"Exposure to hepatitis A virus can cause acute infection of the liver that is typically mild and resolves on its own," the complaint states. "The symptoms and duration of the illness vary a great deal, with many persons showing no symptoms at all."

The virus typically has a 28-day gestation period in the body, but symptoms can begin as early as 15 days or as late as 50 days after exposure. Those symptoms include persistent headaches, fever and the onset of jaundice all over the body but particularly in the eyes and surrounding mucous membranes.

The complaint says this "occurs because bile flows poorly through the liver and backs up into the blood."

Members of the class action who contracted the disease likely also experienced other symptoms such as the darkening of their urine, which occurs when the fluid is saturated with bile.

The disease can thoroughly wreak havoc on the kidneys if left untreated. Relapses can also be prolonged for up to six months after treatment, the complaint states.

The plaintiffs brought claims of negligence and breach of warranty against Tropical Smoothie for the incident, claiming that the "defendants owed a duty to the plaintiffs to use supplies and raw materials that compiled with federal, state and local food laws, ordinances and regulations...[and] were from safe and reliable sources that were clean, wholesome and free from adulteration."

The consumers also claimed that Tropical Smoothie grossly failed to "use reasonable care in the selection, supervision and monitoring of their employees, suppliers or other subcontractors."

The complaint did not specific an amount of damages sought.

The proposed class is represented by Salvatore J. Zambri and Christopher J. Regan of Regan Zambri & Long in Washington, D.C.

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