COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Officials at a Kroger store here destroyed an entire department's inventory of produce because a produce employee was suspected of having contracted the hepatitis A virus.
The employee was diagnosed with hepatitis A June 21, the day after the produce was destroyed. On June 22, a deli employee was also diagnosed with hepatitis A, although the Columbus Department of Health determined that the deli items in stock were probably not contaminated because that employee had already been on sick leave for several weeks. No other cases of hepatitis A had been reported as of June 23.
"We destroyed the produce when we became aware that the [produce] employee may have hepatitis A. It was done strictly as a precautionary measure," said Mark Hrabcak, assistant advertising manager of the Columbus division of Kroger.
"The customer has got to feel comfortable about coming back to the store," Hrabcak said of the store's decision to destroy the produce before the case was even confirmed. After the department was emptied of produce, it was thoroughly sanitized, he said.
Once the decision was made to clean out the department, a new truckload of produce was immediately ordered from Kroger's warehouse. The department was cleaned out at 10 p.m. and completely restocked by about 6 a.m. the next day, Hrabcak said. The store, located next to the campus of Ohio State University, is open 24 hours.
Hrabcak said a dollar loss had not yet been assigned to the produce. The produce department is about 1,440 square feet. Produce employees were inoculated against the virus. Hrabcak said the store did not have a program in place to deal with the cases. However, store officials worked closely with the Columbus Department of Health, the state Department of Agriculture, the Ohio Grocers Association based here and Kroger Co. headquarters in Cincinnati to alert customers and the local media about the situation.
As part of a thorough -- although impromptu -- damage control program, the store advised any shoppers who bought produce between May 31 and June 20 to throw it away and come to the store for a full refund. Kroger also offered to reimburse shoppers for doctor's visits, if any developed the flu-like symptoms or jaundice that mark hepatitis A. As of June 23, no other cases had been reported among employees or customers. Dr. Teresa Long, medical director and assistant health commissioner of the Columbus Department of Health, said hepatitis A, which has an incubation period of two to four weeks, is generally passed through person-to-person contact, or through fecal matter. While state health departments are supposed to be promptly informed about confirmed cases of hepatitis A, the deli employee fell ill several weeks before the incident was reported to Kroger or the health department. By the time the case was reported, it is unlikely any contaminated deli items would still be in stock, she said. The cause of the two hepatitis A cases is still unknown, and Long said she is unsure if there is any connection between them, besides the fact that they worked at the same store. "We may never find a common cause," she said.
Officials at Kroger headquarters referred questions back to Hrabcak.
When SN visited the store shortly after the produce had been replaced, an employee was addressing the concerns of two shoppers who purchased lettuce recently. He assured the shoppers that they did not need a receipt to get a refund for the lettuce, but only needed to estimate how much the lettuce cost. A customer service employee also fielded one call, apparently from a concerned customer.
Despite Kroger's attempts to reassure shoppers of the safety of their produce, at least one customer interviewed by SN said he was spooked by the outbreak.
"I'm not going to be buying any fruit from the store," said Henry Richardson, who did purchase canned and bottled goods. "I'm going to wait a while."
However, another shopper said she was impressed with the way Kroger handled the outbreak. "I'm not really concerned," said Elizabeth Sawyers.