One of 4 firms linked to U.S. hepatitis outbreak violated hygiene standards

MONTERREY, Mexico (AP) -- U.S. inspectors visiting green-onion producers in northwestern Mexico found that one of the four companies linked to a deadly U.S. hepatitis outbreak failed to meet hygiene standards, Mexican officials said Friday.

Javier Trujillo, undersecretary for food safety and quality in Mexico's Ministry of Agriculture, said Dos M Sales de Mexico, a company near the border city of Mexicali, in Baja California state, was washing its scallions with water from a nearby reservoir, rather than with purified drinking water as required.

"The deficiencies were found at the company's packing operation but that is not conclusive proof that this was the origin of the hepatitis outbreak in the United States," Trujillo said.

The other three companies linked to the outbreak that killed three people and sickened more than 600 in Pennsylvania are Agricola La Laguna, or Sun Fresh, of Ensenada; Tecnoagro International in San Luis Rio Colorado and Ensenada, and Agro Industrias Vigor in Tijuana, Ojos Negros and San Quintin, Baja California.

The probe by three inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and one from U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention -- accompanied by Mexican officials -- started Monday and will continue next week when inspectors will visit scallion-exporting companies not linked to the hepatitis A outbreak, Trujillo said.

But Trujillo said the FDA rushed to judgment by publicly identifying suspected companies before completing an investigation that followed the green onions through the supply chain.

"The hypothesis that the outbreak could have originated in Mexico is one, but there is also the likelihood of contamination in the transportation, or at the restaurant," Trujillo said. "It's really surprising that the FDA would only emphasize the hypothesis of contamination at the point of origin."

Ellen Morrison, director of the Office of Crisis Management for the FDA, said the FDA has been very careful with the investigation and sent the inspection team to Mexico only after not finding sources of contamination at the restaurants.

She said it's premature to speak of the inspectors' findings while the investigation is in progress.