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.
Chi-Chi's asks bankruptcy court for permission to pay hepatitis victims
By JOE MANDAK / Associated Press
Chi-Chi's, the Mexican restaurant chain embroiled in a hepatitis A outbreak, has asked a bankruptcy court for permission to pay a $500,000 insurance deductible to free up as much as $51 million in insurance to settle claims by sickened customers and employees.
The 16-page request was filed Wednesday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Dover, Del., where the 100-restaurant chain filed for Chapter 11 protection on Oct. 8.
Through Thursday, the Pennsylvania Department of Health had confirmed 540 cases of hepatitis A linked to a restaurant at the Beaver Valley Mall, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Three customers have died and at least 12 employees are among those infected at the restaurant, which voluntarily closed through at least Jan. 2.
A hearing on the request could occur as early as Friday before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Charles Case, though Chi-Chi's creditors don't object to the motion because offering the payments and settling potential lawsuits will help the company's financial condition, said Chi-Chi's bankruptcy attorney, William Lobel, of Newport Beach, Calif.
"Everybody's in favor of it. Part of it is that people really got hurt and we really want to start doing the right thing," Lobel said Thursday.
Chi-Chi's, based in Louisville, Ky., has come under fire for not offering to pay medical expenses and lost wages to those infected.
Seattle-based attorney William Marler, who represented several plaintiffs in the multi-million-dollar Jack in the Box E. coli case in 1993, has already filed three lawsuits in the Chi-Chi's outbreak and says he represents 50 others.
"I'm glad to hear it," said attorney David Babcock, an associate of Marler's. "I wonder what took so long. I've talked to a lot of people who've been asking me for two-and-a-half weeks what they're going to do about medical expenses."
Lobel said Chi-Chi's efforts to help those infected were hampered simply because the company needs the bankruptcy judge's permission to make any extraordinary expenditures.
Paying the deductible "is the same thing a company would do automatically in this situation," Lobel said. "That guy Marler is missing the point that in bankruptcy you can't just decide to do it. It's not out of a lack of the company's caring — it's the (bankruptcy) process they're in."
Marler's lawsuits have been stayed because a bankrupt company can't be sued unless the bankruptcy judge allows it.
Marler said he didn't know Chi-Chi's was in Chapter 11 when he filed the initial lawsuits, and others won't be filed unless the bankruptcy judge lifts that stay protecting Chi-Chi's from more litigation.
Chi-Chi's Chapter 11 filing last month wasn't related to the hepatitis A outbreak, which wasn't publicly confirmed by Pennsylvania Health Department officials until Nov. 3. Chi-Chi's listed assets of $50 million to $100 million and debts exceeding $100 million in asking for court protection while it reorganizes.
Lobel said the company simply has cash flow problems because it's in a competitive business. "Every time you turn around there's a new Mexican restaurant opening up somewhere," he said.
But the hepatitis outbreak has further hurt the cash-strapped chain's business, with bad publicity affecting sales at its other 99 restaurants in 17 states, stretching from Minnesota to the Mid-Atlantic region, the court document said.
The bankruptcy filing says Chi-Chi's will set up a toll-free hot line for those infected and hire a consulting company to manage and settle potential claims against it. The company hopes to pay "medical costs, lost wages, and other related reimbursements ... without any admission or determination of liability" to those sickened by the outbreak.
Babcock said he and Marler's clients won't accept the money if the restaurant requires those sickened to sign a release forgoing a lawsuit.
"Every client I talked to has a different situation over three or four weeks, with pain and suffering. There's more than just medical bills and lost wages at issue here," he said.
Associated Press Writer Mike Crissey contributed to this report.
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.