Hepatitis A Outbreak Focused on Green Onions

BEAVER, Pa. - Green onions were the likely source of a hepatitis A outbreak at a Chi-Chi's restaurant in western Pennsylvania that has killed three people and sickened at least 575, state health officials announced today. However, the origin of those onions and how they were tainted is still uncertain.

The outbreak is the largest single-source hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history.

Local reports say that although several restaurant chains in the region have stopped using green onions altogether, supermarket sales seem to be unaffected.

The FDA issued a green onion advisory on Nov. 15. Since that time, the case has garnered national attention. Louisville, Ky.-based Chi-Chi's has pulled green onions from 99 other restaurants in 17 states from Minnesota to the Mid-Atlantic. Taco Bell has pulled scallions from some 6,000 American outlets, though there have been no reports of hepatitis A at those stores.

It is not known whether the green onions behind the Pennsylvania outbreak are linked to those already known to have caused smaller outbreaks of hepatitis A in Tennessee and Georgia in September.

The FDA announced Thursday that it has traced green onions in those outbreaks to three Mexican suppliers. Scallions from those companies are reportedly being held at the U.S. border, according to an Associated Press report.

The agency is still trying to trace the source of the onions in the Pennsylvania outbreak and another in North Carolina in September.

Health officials have said the strain of hepatitis found in Pennsylvania is very similar to the one in the Tennessee and Georgia cases.

Chi-Chi's filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Oct. 8 in a move unrelated to the outbreak. The chain on Thursday asked a bankruptcy judge for permission to spend $500,000 on an insurance deductible to free up as much as $51 million in liability insurance. The restaurant hopes to use the money to settle out-of-court claims for medical bills, lost wages and other expenses brought by those sickened in Pennsylvania, according to the AP.
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