Mexican Agriculture Exporters Concerned about Potential U.S. Restrictions Because of Hepatitis Scare, Bioterrorism Law

SourceMex Economic News & Analysis on Mexico, December 10, 2003 | Go to article overview

Mexican Agriculture Exporters Concerned about Potential U.S. Restrictions Because of Hepatitis Scare, Bioterrorism Law


Mexican agriculture exporters could have an increasingly difficult time shipping their products to the US because of negative publicity surrounding an outbreak of hepatitis in four US states in recent weeks and a new bioterrorism law enacted by US President George W. Bush's administration in mid-December.

The outbreak of hepatitis A was most severe in western Pennsylvania, where more than 600 people were confirmed to have been infected after consuming green onions at a local restaurant. Similar cases were reported in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, although fewer people were affected.

US officials concluded that green onions imported from Mexico were contaminated with the hepatitis virus somewhere in the growing, packaging, or delivery process. Hepatitis A attacks the liver and can cause fever, nausea, diarrhea, jaundice, fatigue, abdominal pain, and loss of appetite.

The negative publicity is reminiscent of a similar case in 1997, when strawberries imported from Mexico were blamed for an outbreak of hepatitis among school children in Michigan (see SourceMex, 1997-04-09 and 1998-05-08).

The green onions were reported to have been shipped from Baja California state, although there was no conclusive proof of their origin. One region under close scrutiny was the Mexicali Valley, which cultivates more than 6,300 hectares of green onions with an estimated commercial value of US$44 million, according to the Secretaria de Agricultura, Ganaderia, Desarrollo Rural, Pesca y Alimentacion (SAGARPA).

The hepatitis reports led many US food distributors to cancel or postpone orders and prompted Mexican federal authorities, with the assistance of US experts, to launch a more comprehensive investigation of companies that produce and export green onions to the US market. The investigative team, which included inspectors from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), examined four Baja California companies in particular.

"This preventative action led US authorities to forego a total embargo on imports of green onions, thus allowing 22 of the 26 Mexican exporters to continue shipments to that country," SAGARPA said in a statement.

Authorities cite Baja California company

FDA and SAGARPA officials said the investigation did find that Mexicali-based company Dos M Sales de Mexico was using improper hygiene methods. The company had apparently been washing its scallions with water from a nearby reservoir, rather than with purified drinking water, as required by law.

"The deficiencies were found at the company's packing operation but that is not conclusive proof that this was the origin of the hepatitis outbreak in the United States," said Javier Trujillo, SAGARPA's deputy secretary for food safety and quality.

Still, Trujillo criticized the FDA for naming the suspected companies before completing an investigation that followed the green onions through the supply chain. "The hypothesis that the outbreak could have originated in Mexico is one, but there is also the likelihood of contamination in the transportation or at the restaurant," Trujillo said. "It's really surprising that the FDA would only emphasize the hypothesis of contamination at the point of origin."

FDA officials acknowledged the investigation was difficult because no reliable methods exist to find the virus in green-onion samples collected in the field. Instead, health inspectors analyzed the hepatitis A viruses in infected consumers and found they were virtually identical to those found in residents who live along the US-Mexican border. …

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