Green Onion Imports Still On Hold

This Chi-Chi's Restaurant in the Beaver Valley Mall in Monaca, Pa., remains temporarily closed Tuesday evening, Nov. 11, 2003. State health officials were still trying to determine the cause of a hepatitis A outbreak at this restaurant. Officials believe the virus was spread by an employee who failed to wash his hands before touching food. Six restaurant workers are among those known to have the disease.
Two Mexican growers implicated in last year's deadly hepatitis A outbreak in western Pennsylvania cannot resume shipping green onions to the United States, the Food and Drug Administration said.

Inspectors who visited Tecno Agro Internacional and Agro Industrias Vigor between June 1 and June 4 did not find the virus in the water supply, but found continued problems with water quality as well as food safety and hygiene practices of workers, an FDA spokesman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The FDA said such practices "could potentially lead to another (intestinal) pathogen outbreak."

The United States banned shipments of green onions from these and two other companies during its investigation of the hepatitis A outbreak at the Beaver Valley Mall Chi-Chi's Restaurant. The outbreak affected 660 people and was blamed for four deaths.

During a December inspection of Mexican growers, U.S. investigators found problems ranging from inadequate hand-washing facilities to poor worker health. Investigators also questioned the water quality used in the fields, packing sheds and ice makers.

At Tecno Agro Internacional, inspectors found that bathrooms and hand-washing areas weren't close enough to icing areas, and they were concerned about the water quality used to wash produce, said FDA spokesman Michael Herndon.

At Agro Industrias Vigor, inspectors observed workers taking lunch and bathroom breaks without removing or replacing their gloves, Herndon said.

"They took some remedial measures but there hadn't been enough progress," Lester Crawford, acting commissioner of the FDA, said following a speech in downtown Pittsburgh.

While the FDA reaffirmed its belief that the scallions were contaminated at the Mexican farms, the Mexican government doesn't agree.

"We are not sure that this problem originated in Mexico," said Ernesto Rubio, a Mexican government official who also spoke with Crawford at the Association of Food and Drug Officials Convention. "It is not so easy to have conclusive evidence because once you export, it goes through different hands and how many hands is not so easy to determine."