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Grower fears devastation unless source of virus found

Suprise and dismay at an operation described as a model for cleanliness

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

By Lillian Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

TIJUANA, Mexico -- The FDA's green onion blacklist leads to the door of a low, drab building along a narrow street in this border city.

"As you can see, there are no green onions here," said Martha Mejilla Garcia, controller of Agro Industrias Vigor, one of the names on a U.S. Food and Drug Administration list of eight possible sources of onions that caused recent hepatitis A outbreaks in the United States.

Fewer than a dozen employees in this small office handle the administration of the company.

Owner Manuel Valladolid knows how he got on the list, though he's not sure why he's on it three times -- his two farms and the Tijuana office are listed as separate entities -- or why the U.S. agency published names of the firms before it had completed its investigation or gathered evidence definitively linking the virus to a particular source.

The effect, he says, will be to devastate the green onion industry throughout Baja California, and to forever link disease and death to companies that may not have anything to do with the hepatitis A outbreak.

"I cannot say it wasn't our onions," said Valladolid. "There is always the possibility. We are very upset, concerned. We always are worried about the security of the consumer. But we are a serious business. I have confidence in the integrity of this company."

Since no onions are grown in the administrative office and none were planted on the Agro Industrias Vigor land in San Quentin, about four hours south of here, only onions from the company's Ojos Negros farm could be suspects.

Valladolid said he is listed as a supplier to a Pennsylvania distributor that is a backup provider of onions to the Beaver County Chi-Chi's, where more than 600 people were sickened with hepatitis A.

He listed the hygiene and sanitation safeguards he has put in place at his farms since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1995. All his fields have mobile toilets with hand-washing stations attached. An employee is stationed outside the bathrooms with the sole duty of making sure every worker washes his or her hands after using the facilities. Employees must wash their hands as soon as they arrive at work as well.

Water on the farms is drawn from 300-foot wells and is checked for purity, he said. No reuse of water, for irrigation, washing or drinking, is permitted. No reuse of cups is permitted. Employees are not allowed to eat in the fields.

The FDA has said young children brought to the fields are a possible source of the transmission of the virus, perhaps by parents who don't wash their hands after coming in contact with infected children. But Valladolid has instituted informal day care. He's hired women who normally work harvesting onions to instead care for the children away from the fields. In Ojos Negros, he is building a $120,000 day-care facility.

Francisco Javier Sarmiento, director of agriculture for the state of Baja California, confirmed what Valladolid said about his agricultural practices.

"The state government has a program in which we visit the companies that export and promote good practices. We have been doing this since 1996," said Sarmiento, who added that Agro Industrias Vigor has a clean record and has worked with the state to improve sanitation and agricultural practices over the years.

"So it surprises us very much to be implicated," said Valladolid. He said that his harvest was tapering off at the time the shipments tied to the hepatitis A outbreak would have been made, and that on those dates he was shipping hundreds, rather than thousands, of boxes of onions.

Another mystifying development is the announcement Monday by the Mexican government that it had shut down four enterprises found to have violated agricultural regulations. The government refused to name the companies, but it is widely assumed that they are the same ones that are on the FDA list.

However, Valladolid said he has received no notification or communication from the federal government regarding a shutdown of his farms. Nor have inspectors visited his lands.

Because of the long incubation period for hepatitis A and the resulting time lag between transmission and outbreak, investigators from the United States and Mexico have a difficult task trying to pin down its source.

Inspectors are visiting the suspect enterprises to look for traces of the virus or bad practices that could have transmitted it, but because the green onion harvest is over in many parts of Baja California, they will have little to inspect.

"Our fields are cleaned out. We are preparing for next year," said Valladolid. Many workers migrate following the harvest, so they won't be at the sites where the FDA believes contaminated onions were grown. Finding the source will be tough. Clearing the names of those named as suspects might be even harder.

"We want to resolve this," said Valladolid. "To be implicated, this is costing us in blood."

That's why the FDA is simply detaining shipments from the companies that shipped green onions to Beaver County and places in the South where there were outbreaks of hepatitis A this fall. The Otay Mesa facility has not handled any of those shipments.

Looking for the source is more a matter of guilt by association than the kind of laboratory proof possible in the case of other food-borne illnesses.

The manifests and other documentation required to cross the border contain identification numbers that show where the load came from and where it is headed. Those allow officials to "back-trace" shipments. Government investigators go to the farms and look for unsanitary conditions or other types of contamination that indicate there might be systemic problems. "It's sort of a roundabout way of finding the source of contamination," he said.

(Lillian Thomas can be reached at or 412-263-3566.)

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