Answers elusive in food-safety issues at onion plant

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Ventura County Star (California)

No one seems to know what happened at an Oxnard onion processing plant last month to cause a recall of 30,000 pounds of diced yellow onions.

The company, Gills Onions LLC, doesn’t know: “We don’t have a smoking gun to say where it came from,” said Nelia Alamo, the company’s vice president of marketing and customer relations.

The California Department of Public Health conducted an inspection with the federal Food and Drug Administration, but did not determine a cause.

“We don’t know the exact source of this specific contamination,” said spokeswoman Norma Arceo. The state’s investigation, she said, was inconclusive.

Questions about how long the investigation lasted and what it entailed were not answered Friday.

Health department officials said they will provide more details when they respond to a public records request submitted Friday by The Star. They have up to 10 days to do so.

From the consumer’s standpoint, the lack of information is disconcerting considering the number of food frights that have arisen over the last year regarding fresh vegetables.

A month ago the official word coming from an onion processing plant in Oxnard was that the company did not know how dangerous bacteria that prompted a recall got into one bag of onions.

The California Department of Public Health also reported it did not know.

But the agency’s records, obtained by The Star through a Freedom of Information Act request, show the bacteria appeared at least five times at the plant in the months leading up to the June 20 recall of 41,306 pounds of diced yellow onions sold under the Gills Onions Brand and Sysco Natural Brand.

After the recall, the state health department conducted a two-day inspection at the company’s Oxnard plant that turned up 22 sanitation violations, including: worn and dirty conveyor belts that exposed the onions to foreign debris; used tissues strewn about the processing floor; dirty and damaged
holding bins; employees wearing their head covers incorrectly; and two live birds and their feces on the walls in the “men’s lunch area.”

No one got sick from the bacteria Listeria found in the one bag of onions. It was included in retail packages labeled with “Lot #2017-R” and carried a “best if used by” date of June 16.

Given all the contamination scares that have arisen lately, compounded by yet another spinach recall last week, consumers want answers, said Judy Dugan, research director for the Foundation of Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica.

“We want to know where this is coming from, why foods normally regarded as simply safe and healthy are making people sick,” she said. “And what can be done to make the system far more safe?”

In July, Gills Onions’ spokeswoman Nelia Alamo said the company was in the dark about the origin of the bacteria Listeria.

“We don’t have a smoking gun to say where it came from,” she said at the time.

Last week, she said the company has taken corrective measures and is waiting for new equipment to complete their plan, which she said the state has reviewed and is satisfied with.

Alamo said the company follows “established sanitation procedures and re-testing is done” when listeria is detected in the environment.

“We have not had positive test on the finished product,” she wrote in a facsimile responding to several questions submitted to the company by The Star.

Listeria is a bacterium that can cause listeriosis, which sickens about 2,500 people a year in the U.S., killing about 500. Contaminated food can cause serious infections and is particularly dangerous for pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

Listeria appeared in private lab tests of the Gills’ processing plant in March and April in the inspection and peeling areas.

The state did not know about those positive findings, according to Lea Brooks, spokeswoman for the California Department of Public Health.

“Gills had not notified the CDPH and were not required under the law to do so,” she said in an e-mail message.

The state “generally inspects fresh produce processors annually depending on compliance history and complaints received,” she wrote. The inspections are not announced in advance.

She was unavailable to further describe the reporting process as of press time.

On July 27, The Star asked the state for its reports from the inspections conducted on June 19 and 20. The documents were provided 11 days after the state re-inspected the plant on Aug. 13.

When the recall was announced in June, Gills’ statement to the media was that it involved about 30,000 pounds of onions.

State records, however, show the lot of onions had more than 45,000 pounds in it.

Alamo said Friday that 41,306 was the total amount recalled.

“That amount was stated on all official paperwork with FDA and the State of California Health and Human Services,” she said in her fax.

Alamo said Gills is “committed to producing safe, fresh-cut onion products and to constantly strive for a better food safety program based on the best available information and science.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is the federal agency charged with making sure foods are safe, but has been criticized for being an underfunded agency that is not doing enough to inspect domestic foods. Three phone calls to the agency over three days seeking comment were not returned.

Penalties the state can levy against food processing facilities include suspension or revocation of a firm’s health permit, which would stop operations.

Brooks also said that “if the Food and Drug Branch determines that an existing product is adulterated, staff can embargo the product to prevent distribution into commerce.”

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