PITTSBURGH -- A major hepatitis A outbreak linked to a local restaurant prompted area retailers to remove green onions from produce departments.
"We pulled them," said Dan Sakala, director of marketing for Kuhn's Markets, a five-store independent here. "We took them out of our ad. Once it was linked to green onions, all the stores did the same thing."
Awareness of the outbreak, which caused at least 575 illnesses and three deaths, was extremely high in this area, even before investigators concluded green onions used in food served at a local Chi-Chi's restaurant were the source of the illnesses. It was the nation's biggest outbreak of hepatitis A from a single source.
"In restaurants, people are calling waiters over and asking them what's in the dish," Sakala said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had identified the Mexican produce shippers linked to the contaminated products, and directed border inspectors to detain raw green onion shipments from the implicated firms. The agency also encouraged consumers, when eating out, to find out whether menu items contained raw or lightly cooked green onions and, when cooking at home, to substitute other onions for green onions in recipes.
An official with the Produce Marketing Association criticized the consumer press for raising fears about the safety of imported produce, when the investigation showed a small number of Mexican suppliers were implicated.
"FDA tests show there's little difference between U.S. and imported produce," said Kathy Means, vice president of PMA, Newark, Del. "The produce supply is safe, imports and domestic products. The media immediately jumps to blame imports. The companies [implicated in the outbreak] need to take a hard look at their practices."