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Houston Department of Health and Human Services > Food Inspection and Safety (Consumer Health) > Produce Safety

Produce Safety

The recent outbreaks of hepatitis A linked to imported scallions (green onions), which have killed three people and sickened over 600 people, are the latest examples in a sharp rise in foodborne illness from fruits and vegetables. Foodborne illness from fruits and vegetables is a huge challenge for the industry and regulators as Americans demand fresh produce year-round. Much of the demand is met with imports from countries with less stringent sanitary standards. 

In 1996 and 1997 large outbreaks of foodborne illness were traced to imported raspberries and from 2000 to 2002 there were three large outbreaks of salmonella traced to imported cantaloupes. Our diet has shifted; we are eating more food that is minimally processed and the food comes into American markets from a broader variety of sources. With the increase in the volume of production, when something goes wrong it goes wrong on a larger scale. It is a difficult trade-off. 

What causes the outbreaks?

Many foodborne illness outbreaks can be traced to contamination that occurs at the place of preparation, due to improper sanitation in processing plants/restaurants/homes or due to poor sanitation on farms. The quality of water used at the plant can also contribute to contamination. Hepatitis A is a common childhood disease in developing countries. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has confirmed that children work on the supplying scallion farms. Sewage-contaminated water could also have been the culprit, whether it was used to irrigate the scallions or wash them in the field or to make the ice used in shipping. 

Hepatitis A is spread by fecal matter from infected people; particularly those who fail to wash their hands after using restroom. The virus can survive in food but does not multiply outside the body. Hepatitis A is a liver disease that develops within 6 weeks of an exposure. It is characterized by jaundice (yellow coloration of skin), fatigue, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea and fever. 

What happened in recent case?

The restaurant received the scallions in 8.5 lbs. boxes containing multiple small bundles. After the boxes were unpacked, bundles were stored upright and refrigerated in a bucket with ice included in the shipment. These bundles were stored for more than five days before processing. During processing, employees rinse intact bundles, cut the roots off and removed the rubber band. Restaurant workers chopped eight quarts of scallions in a machine and refrigerated it for more than two days. Periodically, salsas were prepared in batches of 40-80 quarts. Mild salsa contained scallions while the hot salsa did not use scallions (and were not implicated in the outbreak). Mild salsas have a shelf life of three days. Mild and hot salsas were provided to each customer upon seating at the restaurant. 


Providing sanitary facilities for field workers is the first line of defense. Appropriate water quality, use of properly treated fertilizer and good employee health is also very important in the field. Item such as scallions and strawberries are more vulnerable to contamination because their plant surfaces are particularly complex or adherent to viral or fecal particles. Always obtain all your supplies, including produce items from approved and reliable sources. Before you process fruits and vegetables in the restaurant or any other food service establishment, WASH WASH WASH! For scallions, cut the rubber bands and the roots first to wash the produce under cool running potable water. Wash it thoroughly rather than just rinsing it off under water. Cook the scallions thoroughly in a casserole or sauté in a skillet. Monitor your employee health by checking for illness symptoms. Don’t forget to reinforce the importance of hand washing. Education is the first line of defense in the battle for food safety.

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