Three people have died and nearly 600 have been sickened in the outbreak, traced to green onions in salsa and a cheese dip at a Chi-Chi's restaurant at the Beaver Valley Mall, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. It is the nation's biggest known outbreak of hepatitis A.
"I want to assure the public that we've taken every possible action to ensure the public health and safety," Chief Operating Officer Bill Zavertnik said Saturday in a brief statement near the Pittsburgh airport.
He said an investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Pennsylvania Department of Health found no wrongdoing by the company.
"There is currently no industry-accepted means of testing produce for the hepatitis A virus, and beyond that, there is no possible way to wash hepatitis A off contaminated green onions," Zavertnik told reporters. He did not take questions.
Devon Zagory, senior vice president of the food safety firm Davis Fresh Technologies LLC of Redding, Calif., agreed there is no accepted way to test or clean green onions to prevent hepatitis A.
"You can do absolutely everything right and still suffer contamination and hurt people," Zagory said. "There's no such thing as zero risk."
However, Zagory said, the Food and Drug Administration established voluntary guidelines for growers to reduce risk by making sure that water used to grow or wash the vegetables is clean; requiring farms to supply field toilets and make workers wash their hands; and tracking the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
There is no law requiring compliance, but the "industry standard" for large grocery and restaurant chains is to audit their suppliers' compliance with the FDA guidelines, Zagory said.
A Chi-Chi's spokesman did not immediately respond Saturday to a question asking whether the restaurant chain required its suppliers to abide by the FDA guidelines.
"They should have done this and if they haven't done this, I myself would take a rather dim view of their practices," Zagory said.
In a report released Friday, the CDC suggested the Pennsylvania outbreak was more extensive than those linked to green onions in Tennessee and Georgia because of the relatively long shelf life — three days — of the salsa, and because the onions could be stored in water buckets for five days and then refrigerated for two. That means a single contaminated batch could have infected workers or patrons for up to 10 days.
The CDC said the onions had been traced to Mexico, but stopped short of saying they came from one of three Mexican companies known to have supplied the onions blamed for outbreaks in Tennessee and Georgia. The FDA is stopping shipments from those companies at the border for inspections.
The restaurant at the Beaver Valley Mall has been closed since the outbreak was confirmed Nov. 3. Chi-Chi's also has removed green onions from its 99 other restaurants in 17 states from Minnesota to the mid-Atlantic.
The restaurant chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Oct. 8, a move unrelated to the outbreak. On Friday, a bankruptcy judge gave limited approval to Chi-Chi's plans to begin paying some expenses of those sickened in the outbreak — up to $20,000 per claim.