DOH: Be aware of raw food risk

LIHUE — Val Faford was concerned when she found out Hawaii’s Department of Health closed Genki Sushi on Monday in connection with the state’s hepatitis A outbreak.

“I was there (at Genki Sushi in Lihue) last week,” the Puhi resident said. “My best friend and I go there all the time.”

State health officials say it was the wild-harvested, frozen Sea Port Bay Scallops, which Genki Sushi serves raw in the restaurant, that were contaminated with the virus. The scallops originated in the Philippines, and they are distributed by Koha Oriental Foods on Kauai and Oahu.

According to Peter Oshiro, DOH sanitation branch chief, DOH conducted a survey of Genki Sushi on Tuesday.

He said the DOH is requiring Genki Sushi to disinfect all hard surfaces, dispose of all of their scallop supply, and make sure their employee hygiene habits are up to par with DOH standards.

In a Tuesday morning press conference, Oshiro said the restaurant could re-open as early as within the week, though the actual date is undetermined.

“I don’t want to say exactly when,” Oshiro said in the conference. “When they’ve met all of our concerns, they’ll re-open.”

On Kauai, two people have been diagnosed with the virus in connection to the outbreak. Statewide, 168 people have been diagnosed with hepatitis A.

“The investigation and product tracing is still underway and DOH has restricted use, sale and distribution of the product,” said Janice Okubo, spokeswoman for DOH. “Our health inspectors are following up on any other locations where the product may have been received.”

Faford said her family loves the extensive menu at Genki Sushi — it’s a favorite dig for her kids who are 7, 10, 12 and 14. She said the youngsters ate there two weeks ago.

“I’m going to keep an eye on my kids,” Faford said. “That’s scary.”

Faford said she usually orders the garlic chicken, the spicy tuna roll or the ahi, and her family never orders food off the conveyor belt.

“I think about all those kids breathing on the food and that freaks me out,” she said.

DOH has not connected any of the hepatitis A cases specifically to the conveyor belt at Genki Sushi.

Park said though the imported frozen scallops are certainly the focus of the current investigation, DOH cautions consuming raw products always comes with a risk of food borne illness.

“We live in a day and age where we import from a lot of different locations and we do consume a lot of seafood in this state raw,” Park said.

Oshiro explained anyone who eats seafood raw is at risk for contracting a food borne illness and “we have to go in with our eyes wide open when we decide to eat something uncooked or raw.”

Symptoms and what to do

According to Sarah Park, state epidemiologist, hepatitis A has “an incredibly long incubation period.”

Lisa Gelling, with the Kauai District Health Office epidemiology department, said incubation period is anywhere from two to six weeks.

DOH is recommending anyone who has been to Genki Sushi to monitor their health for 50 days from the date of their last visit. Anyone who has eaten there within the last two weeks is encouraged to consult a doctor, potentially to receive a hepatitis A vaccine or immunoglobulin therapy.

Gelling said immunoglobulin is used for short-term protection from the disease because it imports antibodies to fight the virus into the body. Vaccinations stimulate the body’s own immune system to fight the virus and offer more long-term protection.

Park said DOH realizes some people sample a bit of everything at Genki Sushi, and it’s possible some may not realize they’ve consumed scallops.

Exposure point for the cases that DOH has investigated has started as far back as mid-April and the last known exposure point has been tentatively set at early July.

“We don’t know if there are persons in the last month that have been exposed,” Park said.

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms for hepatitis A include fatigue, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, low-grade fever, dark urine, joint pain and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes).

Prevent the spread

Secondary cases are also a concern to health officials because the hepatitis A virus is spread through oral contact with contaminated fecal matter, which means it can be contracted through various types of physical contact, including sexual contact, as well as through contaminated food.

“Usually it’s more frequent that someone doesn’t wash their hands and they handle food,” Gelling said. “(But), if a person has an infection and they have feces on their body and someone licks them there, than there’s a possibility that person can get infected.”

DOH says they’ve already identified a few secondary cases, though at this point the vast majority of infected individuals are primary cases.

Gelling said the best way to prevent the spread of hepatitis A is to wash your hands, especially after using the bathroom and before preparing food.

Cooking food for one minute at a temperature above 185 degrees Fahrenheit will kill the virus, so health officials are also recommending consuming cooked food.

Re-opening Genki Sushi

Tiffany Fliegel, from Princeville, said she eats at Genki Sushi about two or three times a month and the last time she dined there was just over two weeks ago.

“I think closing was the responsible thing to do to make sure we can figure out essentially where this is coming from instead of just issuing a recall like other companies,” Fliegel said.

Fliegel never touches the scallops, she said, and favors their chicken dishes, poke rolls, and the special rolls. She orders from the kitchen about 90 percent of the time, she said, and rarely grabs from the conveyor belt.

“If they were still open, I wouldn’t eat at their place until they got clearance,” Fliegel said. “A far as my health, I think I’m fine.”

In November, the Kauai Genki Sushi re-opened its doors after a four-month, $1 million renovation. It’s the only Genki Sushi location on Kauai and is one of 14 statewide.

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