Southern Exposure

Desde as Entranhas dos Labirintos Latinos.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The Green Onion Controversy

No, this is not a story about a historic R&B combo, but rather the lastest will you won't you (or rather, did you, didn't you) story in the great globalisation of food debate. According to MSNBC

Deadly scallions traced to Mexico

Federal health investigators have determined that a deadly outbreak of hepatitis A among restaurant diners in Tennessee, Georgia and Pennsylvania was caused by green onions produced in Mexico, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said on Tuesday. More than 500 people were infected in the outbreak and three died.........

FDA investigators pinpointed a link between the three outbreaks and green onions from Mexico after visiting four Mexican companies last week. They found poor sanitation and inadequate hand washing facilities and also had concerns about the quality of water used in the fields, packing sheds, and the making of ice, which can help spread the disease.........

The investigation has been difficult because no reliable methods exist to find the virus in green onion samples collected in the field. Instead, health workers analyzed the hepatitis A viruses in infected consumers and found they were virtually identical to those found in residents who live along the U.S.-Mexican border. Mexico has stepped up inspections and controls for green onions and is working with the FDA to ensure the safety of produce shipped across the border.
Meantime the Pitsburgh post-Gazatte put it rather differently:
FDA finds need for improvement but no hepatitis links in Mexico

The Food and Drug Administration said yesterday that its investigation of four Mexican firms implicated in recent hepatitis A outbreaks uncovered several questionable practices that could allow infectious diseases to spread.

But the agency said there's still no explanation for exactly what contaminated the green onions linked with three deaths and more than 600 illnesses during a November outbreak among patrons of the Chi-Chi's restaurant at Beaver Valley Mall.

The place of contamination isn't clear, either, with the FDA saying it's continuing to investigate in both Mexico and the United States.

Based on interviews and observations conducted last week, U.S. investigators identified concerns ranging from poor sanitation practices and inadequate hand-washing facilities to questions about worker health and hygiene. Investigators also questioned the quality of water used by green onion growers in fields, packing sheds and ice makers.

Any of those issues "can have a role in the spread of infectious diseases such as hepatitis A," the FDA said in a statement of preliminary findings posted on its Web site.

A Mexican official last week provided a somewhat different version of what the investigators had uncovered, saying water problems were found at just one farm.

Dr. Javier Trujillo, undersecretary of food safety and quality, also asserted that there was no conclusive link between the Mexican companies and the Beaver County outbreak or earlier outbreaks in Tennessee and Georgia.

Dr. Tony Fiore, a hepatitis expert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the preliminary results announced by the FDA weren't surprising.

"The team went down there anticipating it would be extremely hard to find out exactly what happened," Fiore said. "The hope was to find one particular practice that clearly was way outside the norm, but instead what they found were a number of practices that could stand to be improved."

The U.S. investigative team included three people from the FDA and one from CDC. The CDC representative has returned home, Fiore said. The FDA statement left it unclear whether its investigators had returned or not.

When U.S. investigators visited the Mexican companies, none of them were actually harvesting or handling green onions and none of the firms had field workers or packing shed workers present, FDA said yesterday.

Scallions that sickened the Chi-Chi's patrons would have been harvested in September. Green onions linked to restaurant outbreaks this fall in Tennessee and Georgia would have been harvested in late July or early August.

There are no reliable methods to find hepatitis A virus in samples collected in the field, so the FDA did not collect environmental or green onion samples for analysis, the agency said.

No one firm's scallions are common to all of the outbreaks under investigation, the FDA said.

Mexican growers have criticized the FDA for singling them out and not their counterparts in the United States. While green onions served at restaurants in Beaver County, Tennessee and Georgia were all traced to Mexico, the agency has not yet determined the origin of the onions served in two North Carolina restaurants where there was another outbreak.

The FDA said it was pleased to see that some farms visited were making or had just completed improvements to their water systems and other physical facilities.

In an interview last week, Trujillo said that investigators found Dos M Sales -- one of the firms implicated by FDA -- was rinsing onions with water that did not meet water quality requirements. That company's packing house, located in an arid region west of Mexicali, used water from a natural reservoir that did not meet standards, Trujillo said. But there was no evidence of hepatitis A virus in the packing house, he added.
Is Beauty simply in the eye of the beholder?

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