Class-action suit filed over tainted berry mix

A class-action lawsuit was filed Monday on behalf of a Maui couple and other Hawaii residents who obtained medical testing or treatment after being exposed to frozen berries linked to hepatitis A.

The lawsuit, filed in 2nd Circuit Court, is against Townsend Farms Inc., an Oregon corporation that distributes Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend, a frozen berry and pomegranate seed mix.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked the product to 79 hepatitis A cases in eight western states, according to the lawsuit. The Hawaii Department of Health reported three hepatitis A cases linked to the berries with two Oahu residents and one on Kauai affected.

Jenabe and Motoko Caldwell, the Maui couple named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, bought the berry blend April 13 from Costco in Kahului and consumed it before its association with the hepatitis A outbreak was known, the lawsuit says. Costco removed the product from its shelves about May 31 when a public announcement was made about the link to hepatitis A cases, according to the lawsuit.

After learning about the link, the Caldwells received a prophylactic dose of immune globulin, a substance to help prevent development of symptoms even in people infected with hepatitis A, said lawyer Drew Falkenstein of Seattle-based Marler Clark. The law firm, which handles litigation over major outbreaks of food-borne disease, is co-counsel in the lawsuit with Honolulu attorney Michael O’Connor of Ogawa, Lau, Nakamura & Jew.

Falkenstein said that the Caldwells don’t have symptoms of hepatitis A, “and we’re hopeful they never will.”

He said that the class-action lawsuit is meant to cover Hawaii residents like the Caldwells who are trying to prevent illness from exposure by being tested or inoculated. It’s estimated that more than 10,000 people fit the class description, Falkenstein said, noting that Costco alone sold up to 330,000 bags of the berry product in western states.

“Costco really is an admirable company,” Falkenstein said. “They’re taking steps to do what they can to get that product off the market.”

Townsend Farms couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

According to its website, the company announced June 4 that it was “voluntarily recalling certain lots of its frozen Organic Antioxidant Blend, out of an abundance of caution, because it has the potential to be contaminated with hepatitis A virus, based on an ongoing epidemiological and trace-back investigation.”

Hepatitis A is a contagious liver disease that can last from a few weeks to several months.

Falkenstein said that the firm has filed or will be filing similar lawsuits in eight other western states.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at