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FDA stops green onions from 3 Mexican suppliers

Their produce linked to hepatitis outbreaks

Friday, November 21, 2003

By Christopher Snowbeck, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Shipments of green onions from three Mexican suppliers whose products have been implicated in recent hepatitis A outbreaks in Georgia and Tennessee are being stopped at the border by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA will then examine the shipments for disease.

It's not known if the same Mexican companies supplied the Beaver Valley Mall Chi-Chi's, where an outbreak of hepatitis A has sickened 540 employees and patrons, but the viral strain found here is very similar to that in the other outbreaks.

Because of that similarity, investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe the viruses could possibly be traced to the same farm or group of infected people.

The FDA is still trying to determine where the Chi-Chi's green onions came from.

They are also trying to trace the green onions that sickened 16 people at two North Carolina restaurants in September.

The agency has advised people concerned about hepatitis A not to eat raw or lightly cooked green onions.

Pennsylvania Department of Health officials still haven't announced that green onions caused the outbreak here, but they are expected to do so today.

Ten new cases of hepatitis A were reported yesterday. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center reported that one patient had been upgraded from critical to serious condition. One other remained hospitalized at UPMC in fair condition.

Watchdog groups commended the FDA's action stopping the onions at the border, though they also maintained it was overdue.

For years, the FDA has ignored warning signs that green onions are a threat to food safety, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Green onions have been implicated not only in hepatitis outbreaks, but also in illnesses caused by the Shigella bacteria and the parasite Cryptosporidium.

The agency needs more inspectors on the border to perform microbial tests on green onions and other produce, said Karen Taylor Mitchell of Safe Tables Our Priority. The Burlington, Vt., group was formed following a 1993 E. coli bacterial outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants on the West Coast, where more than 600 were sickened and four died.

Dr. Bob Brackett, the FDA's director of food safety and security, said new bioterrorism laws going into effect will strengthen the agency's ability to police produce.

Starting Dec. 12, any companies exporting food to the United States will have to give prior notice to the FDA about when and where the shipment is crossing the border, he said. Shippers and distributors who move food will also be required to keep better records about the origin and destination of products.

Both steps will better help the agency trace contaminated foods, Brackett said. Restaurant patrons in Tennessee and Georgia were sickened in outbreaks that were linked to contaminated green onions by Oct. 10. Yet, the FDA couldn't say that the Tennessee and Georgia onions came from Mexico until this past week.

Food safety advocates say the new regulations aren't perfect.

"We believe these are an improvement over FDA's existing authority," DeWaal said. "It's just not clear that in the final regulations that FDA has given themselves enough leeway to actually manage inspectors and protect consumers adequately."

U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Bradford Woods, called last night for a congressional hearing into both the outbreak and whether the government's response was adequate.

(Christopher Snowbeck can be reached at or 412-263-2625.)

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