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U.S. reports problems at 4 onion companies

Findings contradict Mexican officials

U.S. officials yesterday said an investigation of Mexican growers linked to recent hepatitis A outbreaks in the United States identified problems at each of four companies visited in Baja California and Sonora.

A statement released by the Food and Drug Administration contradicted Mexico's top food safety official, who said Friday that the probe had cleared three of the growers but found deficient practices at a fourth.

Baja California agriculture officials also have spoken out in the growers' defense. They said no evidence links the four firms to the outbreaks that have sickened more than 900 people in Tennessee, Georgia and Pennsylvania in the past three months and killed three more who ate raw green onions served in salsa at a Chi-Chi's restaurant in Pennsylvania. The FDA halted all four companies' green onion shipments to the United States as of Nov. 21.

The FDA identified "problems of concern" at all four Mexican companies, including "poor sanitation, inadequate hand washing facilities, questions about worker health and hygiene, the quality of water used in the fields, packing sheds and the making of ice."

Its statement also revealed that the onions linked to the outbreaks came from more than one of the growers.

FDA officials could not be reached for further comment late yesterday afternoon.

Mexico's food safety director, Javier Trujillo, told The San Diego Union-Tribune last week that conditions at three of the growers "exceeded the expectations" of the FDA. Trujillo was out of the country yesterday, an assistant said.

Baja California Agriculture Secretary Juan Pablo Hernández echoed Trujillo's statements Saturday. "There has been no physical evidence linking this problem with the fields and packing houses in Baja California," he said.

The FDA statement noted that its agents were pleased to see that some of the farms were making or had just completed improvements to their water systems and other facilities.

It did not identify those firms nor specify the problems that were found.

The statement also said the agency is continuing to investigate the source of the disease "in both the U.S. and Mexico."

But it indicated the difficulty of conclusively linking the hepatitis outbreaks to the Mexican operations or those elsewhere.

Epidemiologists and food safety experts have said the FDA might never be able to pinpoint how or where the onions were contaminated.

When inspectors arrived last week, the FDA statement said, none of the farms or packing sheds was harvesting or handling green onions or had field workers or packing shed workers on site.

Investigators did not collect environmental or green onion samples for hepatitis A analysis, the statement said, because no reliable methods exist to find the virus from field samples.

The four firms have been identified as Agro Industrias Vigor, which grows onions at Ojos Negros and San Quintin; Agricola La Laguna of Ensenada, which also does business as Sun Fresh; Techoagro Internacional of San Luis Colorado and Ensenada; and Dos M Sales de Mexico.

Trujillo said Friday that the only operation found to be deficient in terms of hygiene was the packing plant of Dos M Sales, a company he said is owned by a U.S. citizen named Michael Brazeel. He said the packing plant, west of Mexicali outside the town of La Rumorosa, was using untreated water from a small dam.

Staff writer Sandra Dibble contributed to this report.

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