Starbucks is scrambling to reassure customers who may have consumed food contaminated with hepatitis A, which may cause stomach cramps, nausea and diarrhea, that they aren’t at risk of getting sick.
The disease, which is highly contagious, is rarely transmitted between humans. Infection is contracted by drinking contaminated water or food contaminated with feces, generally through contaminated fecal matter on foods prepared by a sick person. While some people can live without getting sick, for most it only takes one unguarded handshake or meal to end up with hepatitis A, which primarily affects people who are chronically unemployed, homeless or underinsured.
Starbucks has initiated a full-scale “crisis response,” including making a list of foods consumers may have consumed and messaging the approximately 17,000 employees who served them. The Seattle-based company is also reaching out to customers via text, email and phone who may have eaten at Starbucks between Feb. 23 and March 2 and left the door open for the disease to spread. The company has also closed all of its Bay Area stores, which could help keep hepatitis A, particularly in the extremely populated region, from spreading.
The outbreak has led the California Department of Public Health to advise consumers to discard any Starbucks coffee, soups and salads that they may have consumed since Feb. 24. However, the department said that Starbucks has not “confirmed any cases of illness with this outbreak of hepatitis A infection in California” and that none of the store closures would cause any people to be sick.
“Our top priority is ensuring the safety of our customers and our employees,” Starbucks said in a statement. “As such, we are proactively engaging with state and local health officials to address any potential public health issues.”
So far, there have been eight confirmed hepatitis A cases at the company’s company-owned and franchise-operated stores in California, according to a spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health. In San Francisco, more than 100 people have received the hepatitis A vaccine after coming in contact with a potential source of the disease, said Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, the city’s health director.
“The infection can spread through ingestion of contaminated food or beverages, or through the human-to-human transmission of contaminated fecal matter,” the California Department of Public Health said in a statement. “It usually takes six weeks after the infection to become symptomatic.”
The department recommends that people who consumed food at a Starbucks or other establishments that may have served food contaminated with hepatitis A contact a healthcare provider immediately.
The department said that an estimated 1 million Americans become infected with hepatitis A every year.