Source of infectious outbreak still unknown

NEED TEST RESULTS: Valley peas suspected but there's no proof.

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WASILLA -- Alaska health officials are still trying to pin down for certain the cause of an unusually large infectious outbreak that has sickened more than 18 people in Southcentral Alaska.

Officials said last week they believe the source was raw peas from a Palmer farm contaminated by excrement from passing flocks of sandhill cranes. But more testing is needed to establish a conclusive link.

The state issued a public health alert last Thursday after receiving reports of more than 30 Southcentral residents with lab-confirmed Campylobacter infections. Of 39 lab-confirmed cases as of mid-week, 23 ate raw peas grown at Mat-Valley Peas' fields, a "significant" association, an official said. One infected person was hospitalized for observation.

Symptoms of the illness can include diarrhea, abdominal pain, weakness, fever, nausea and vomiting.

"That was enough of a concern to issue a public-health alert and start a public health investigation," said state epidemiologist Tracie Gardner.

Still, the state is awaiting results from lab tests looking for bacteria in peas, water, soil and crane stool samples taken from the farm. Those results, which might take up to two weeks, could help determine whether the outbreak is linked to the farm's peas, she said.

Wild birds carry the Campylobacter bacteria in question, so it's possible the cranes spread the bacteria onto the pea fields through their poop. People can also pick up Campylobacter through contact with livestock, by drinking untreated water or eating undercooked poultry.

Farmer John Hett, 65, who rises at 3 a.m. to pick peas -- as he has for 32 years -- said he's not yet convinced his crop is at fault. But he supports the investigation.

"We're dealing with people's livelihoods here," he said. "If there's a problem, then we'd like to know what it is and what can be done about it."

Health officials have said the peas can be safely eaten if cooked, or just blanched in boiling water for 90 seconds. But several retailers said they have pulled the peas from shelves, including the Three Bears warehouse store between Palmer and Wasilla.

"Basically, what everybody is doing is waiting for those field results to come back," said Three Bears produce manager Mark Inman.

Municipality of Anchorage officials, leading up the retail side of the investigation, have told grocers to either take the peas off the shelves or post alerts that the peas need to be cooked, said Chris Tofteberg, the city's acting environment services division manager.

Mat Valley Peas sells five- and 10-gallon bags harvested and combined for shelling, then rinsed in water. Inspectors have visited the farm since the outbreak and added a chlorine wash to the process, said Ron Klein, the state's food safety sanitation program manager.

For nearly 30 years, Hett said those bags have carried a message recommending consumers blanch the peas for storage.

Some retailers, however, took the peas out of the original bags and sold them, without the cooking message, in smaller amounts, according to a state press release. The Alaska State Fair and farmer's markets apparently sold peas out of the packaging, said state health department spokesman Greg Wilkinson. So did Carrs/Safeway grocery stores, said Tofteberg.

There is no labeling requirement for produce unless it's marketed as washed and ready to eat, Klein said. He expects various state officials and Alaska produce farmers will talk this winter about growing and processing practices to "help ensure that people can buy Alaska produce with confidence."

It's unclear whether that process will result in new laws.

Hett said he has no gripe with retailers. He just hopes that, whatever the investigation reveals, the bad publicity doesn't hurt his farm long-term.

In the meantime, he's sold some peas at the farm and at farmer's markets.

"There's a lot of people that aren't afraid of our peas," Hett said.



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