The Hawaii Department of Health ordered all Oahu and Kauai Genki Sushi Restaurants to close for business Monday night.
The Department of Health has determined that the hepatitis A outbreak on Oahu is likely due to imported frozen scallops served raw at Genki Sushi restaurants on Oahu and Kauai.
The restaurants were closed Monday to prevent any further illness and protect the public.
“After determining the strong probable link between the majority of cases, the department immediately notified Genki Sushi Restaurants, ordered the embargo of the frozen scallop product, and the closure of all Oahu and Kauai facilities,” said Health Director Dr. Virginia Pressler. “The business has complied with all orders, contacted all of their Hawaii restaurants, and is working with the department to ensure the safety of its customers. Our staff is in the field today working with distributors to embargo the product.”
Nicole Takahashi was eating at the Waikele restaurant Monday night when she heard the news.
“Everything was going great until we got the news that we needed to finish and could just leave without paying for the food. We just got scared,” she told KHON2. “I had to ask why. I was scared, getting nervous, and they just got a call that there were scallops, tainted scallops, so all the Genki locations were being closed down.”
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All Genki Sushi locations on Oahu and Kauai are going through a complete overhaul, tossing all their food and more.
The restaurants are now required to dispose of all food products and single use items such as cups, napkins, and utensils, and have to be sanitized from seven feet high to the ground.
“We will continue to work with the Department of Health to ensure we are in compliance so we can open our restaurants as soon as possible,” said Mary Hansen, CEO, Genki Sushi USA Inc.
So far, none of the 400 Genki Sushi employees have come down with Hepatitis A. The vaccine was offered to workers a week before state officials ordered the restaurants to close.
DOH embargoes frozen scallop products at two Oahu distributors
DOH has ordered the embargo of all frozen scallop products distributed by Koha Oriental Foods and True World Foods in Hawaii. An embargo of products restricts their use, sale or distribution.
Koha Oriental Foods had supplied the product to Genki Sushi Restaurants on Oahu and Kauai. Because Genki Sushi Restaurants on Oahu and Kauai had received, handled and served the product, the establishments were ordered to close immediately.
The Hawaii State Department of Health confirmed that True World Foods did not send the implicated frozen imported scallops to the Maui and Hawaii Island Genki Sushi restaurants.
Health inspectors were able to embargo the product at the True World Food warehouse on Oahu before it was distributed.
DOH identified the product as Sea Port Bay Scallops (Wild Harvest, Raw Frozen) that originated in the Philippines (states “Product of the Philippines” on the box).
We went to Koha Foods, where a company official says it shipped up to 1,500 pounds of the frozen scallops to the 11 Genki restaurants that are now shut down. The FDA and the health department took samples of the product last week.
“This one product is sold only to Genki and we’ve been out of stock of it, so the whole lot has gone out. The FDA is over with the suppliers and working with them and still testing the product itself,” said Dane Nakamura, Koha Foods chief financial and operating officer.
The health department has embargoed about 2,000 pounds of the frozen scallops at True World Foods. The company is also recalling it from the other restaurants that have been serving the product.
“We just basically put it in a secure location, the Department of Health came and tagged it, and we’re just going to wait on them to see what’s the next step,” said Keliikipi Manewa, True World Foods operations manager.
A food safety expert says the scallops were probably harvested from polluted waters.
“Shellfish are filter feeders, so whatever’s in the water, they keep inside them after they’ve filtered the water through their bodies. That’s why we have what’s called shell stock tags that you have to keep for 90 days after you serve the shellfish. Those tags tell you when and where that shellfish was harvested,” explained Tom Frigge.
KHON2 has learned that restaurants are required to to keep those tags if they serve shellfish in order to get a green placard from the health department. Frigge says the FDA also requires food importers to keep detailed records.
“Where the food came from, what country it came from, and those countries now have to have food safety records and all that kind of thing,” Frigge said.
We also reached out to Sea Port, which has an office in Washington state. It provided the following statement Wednesday:
“Sea Port is working closely with health officials to assist in their investigation. We have been told that officials are considering various foods that were consumed in foodservice establishments, including scallops that we shipped before July 2 to the Island of Oahu in Hawaii.
While the cause of the outbreak is not yet clear, we have stopped distributing scallops from our supplier until this is resolved. We have also provided health officials with documentation as requested.
There is nothing more important to us than providing safe, high quality seafood to our customers. We will continue to assist health officials as they work to conclude the investigation and determine the cause of the outbreak.”
Outbreak investigation continues
Officials say while this is a milestone, there is still a lot of work to be done.
State epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park estimates the earliest known exposure date to be mid-April, and fears contaminated product is still circulating to other restaurants.
“That is something we’re very concerned about,” Park said. Health officials are still working to locate additional contaminated products, if there are any.
DOH has also been in contact with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Hawaii office to investigate the product origin. Food products imported from outside the state are regulated by the FDA.
Park says there are wider concerns as the products may have been distributed to other locations in the U.S. She also noted that the FDA is examining all scallop products being brought into the country.
“We are gratified to uncover this major piece of the investigation,” said Park. “My staff have been persistent and tireless in their search for clues to prevent new cases and put an end to the outbreak. Our investigation continues, as we work to confirm our findings and ensure contaminated product is no longer in circulation and the risk of transmission is eliminated.”
The Centers for Disease Control recently flew in from the mainland to help with the epidemic. Park says she’s trying to convince them to stay longer.
“I still need help. I still need skilled staffing, so we still have a lot of work ahead of us,” she said.
Genki Sushi restaurants on Oahu and Kauai will remain closed until the Department of Health can ensure their safe operation. All frozen scallop products from distributors Koha Oriental Foods and True World Foods are being restricted and will be destroyed to prevent any further illness.
Genki Sushi diners encouraged to take online survey
Park says they started focusing on Genki in the last week or so. Health officials credit a general public survey with about 5,300 respondents that helped identify the potential source.
Park explained that about 70 percent of the known cases said they ate at a Genki location on Oahu compared to about 22 percent of survey respondents reporting that they ate at one of the restaurants. Park said that there were no other locations with such a strong difference.
They are unsure if the rest of the people that got ill did not remember eating at Genki or caught it from another establishment.
The Department of Health has replaced that survey with a new one targeting individuals who ate at Genki Sushi after April 23, and have not been ill.
The department is looking for people willing to participate in a case control study.
As of Aug. 10, the DOH reported 168 confirmed cases of hepatitis A.
Eight of those individuals now live on the islands of Hawaii, Kauai, and Maui, and one visitor has returned to the mainland.
All cases have been in adults, 46 have required hospitalization.