The Associated Press reports that the Food and Drug Administration says workers at one of four Mexican green onion farms inspected as the result of a 2003 hepatitis outbreak lived in windowless metal shacks with no showers. Shallow trenches ran from an area littered with soiled diapers and other human waste, downhill to onion fields and a packaging house, recently released documents show.
The FDA has stopped short of conclusively linking any one problem at the farms to the outbreak, which sickened at least 650 people and killed four who ate at the Chi-Chi’s restaurant in Beaver County.
From the article:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded green onions caused the outbreak because they were the common denominator for all those who got sick. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA traced the onions through Castellini to the Mexican farms that were inspected in December 2003, two months after the outbreak, Gordon said.
“I think people make a lot of assumptions about conditions at these farms and what those conditions might have led to,” said Castellini attorney Gary Becker. “But there’s no evidence the hepatitis A that contaminated these poor folks in Pennsylvania were ever found on a green onion.”
That’s a red herring, Gordon said.
It’s true that investigators never found a green onion that tested positive for hepatitis at the restaurant or on the farms.
But officials say it’s uncommon for tainted food samples to be found after an outbreak because they have been eaten or thrown away by the time the outbreak is discovered. And, months after the farms shut down for the season, there’s no way to test whether hepatitis A tainted the onions, said Bill Marler, the Seattle-based food litigation attorney who represents scores of victims.
Marler gave the FDA inspection reports to The Associated Press after his firm obtained them last month through the Freedom of Information Act.
FDA spokesman Michael Herndon said three of the four farms inspected in 2003 are still banned from exporting onions to the United States. Among other things, inspectors questioned worker training and hygiene; whether water supplies were tainted by human or animal waste; and whether water used to wash onions was clean and properly chlorinated.
The Dos M Sales De Mexico farm in LaRumorosa where the FDA found the squalid housing also couldn’t document that portable toilets were available to workers for two weeks during the 2003 growing season. Workers there fashioned showers out of wood and metal scraps, the FDA found. The farm was the only one inspected that didn’t offer child care, forcing workers to keep tabs on their children from a distance while they worked.
“They didn’t find the smoking gun. The conditions at that place were the worst, but hepatitis A could have spread at any of those locations,” Marler said.