[Market-farming] Green Onions in Western PA

Alliums garlicgrower at earthlink.net
Thu Nov 27 10:42:29 EST 2003

Lucy wrote:

>A Chi Chi's mexican restaurant in NE PA had a major hepatitis A outbreak 2 
>weeks ago that quickly spread to Ohio and a few other states That I don't 
>recall right now. Something like 500 got ill and 20 or 30 people died. it 
>was all traced to raw green onions from Mexico.

Gosh, never considered Butler NE PA -- more like "central Western PA."  My 
mother (Kittanning) has been screaming about this for weeks, but the 
Philadelphia Inquirer did not see fit to publish anything about it until 
the magic number of "500 people infected" suddenly transformed the story 
into "worthy of printing in the local news section." I wondered how soon 
we  would start talking about it here -- guess there aren't any Western PA 
growers on the list! ;-)

If you want details, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has been following the 
whole thing since it broke (or you can just call my Mom who is livid over 
how the story has been ignored nationally! ;-)).

In short, the Chi Chi in the Butler mall suddenly had all these customers 
and employees come down with hepatitis A.  At first, they thought that it 
was an employee, but the employees got it the same time as the 
customers.  Over 5,000 people have been given hepatitis A -- basically if 
you ate at this restaurant or had a family member who did, the CDC gave you 
the vaccine. (Most of the people from other states who got it were at the 
restaurant visiting family, etc.)  After hemming and hawing for weeks 
(corporate structure being what it is, someone at Chi Chi *really* wanted 
to blame an employee), the CDC has finally decided that the hepatitis A 
came from green onions imported from Mexico that were served raw as a 
garnish or in salsa. This has led to some really hilarious TV news stories 
on the Philly stations and a Page 3 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer 
urging folks to "cook green onions thoroughly." If you know anything about 
cuisine in general and Mexican (or French) cuisine in particular, the POINT 
of green onions is NOT TO COOK THEM!

Twenty-one years ago (gosh, I feel really *old*), I remember my 
microbiology professor in college telling us that if the US insisted on 
importing produce from Mexico and other Latin American countries that 
food-borne diseases would climb off the chart.  Sanitation is iffy at best, 
the farm workers are in poor health and since no one local is eating the 
food, no one (literally) gives a shit. (sorry, couldn't resist the pun, 
plus it's what he said!)  Unfortunately, he's no longer with us, but it 
both saddens and scared me that he's being proven to be completely correct.

There MUST be a marketing opportunity for the small local grower here.  Chi 
Chi's banned green onions from their restaurants nationwide last 
week.  Green onions as a garnish or finishing herb in a huge part of many 
cuisines -- I just don't see why anyone should have to give that up just 
because someone bought "cheap" green onions from Mexico.  Somehow, we need 
to wade into the debate and point out that it's perfectly safe to eat green 
if they are *GROWN PROPERLY*.  If Chi Chi's wants to ban green onions to 
"cut costs," let them, but surely there is a place for the small grower to 
go to other outlets (or even the local Chi Chi after everyone has had a 
chance to settle down) and say "I can give you the produce you want without 
this undue risk and here's why."

I think the "green onion incident" is only the first of many -- let's 
figure out how to carve a market out of this and bring back local produce 

Dorene Pasekoff, Coordinator
St. John's United Church of Christ Organic Community Garden

A mission of
St. John's United Church of Christ, 315 Gay Street, Phoenixville, PA  19460

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