Still no answers on contamination of local firm’s onions

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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.

“If Americans are going to trust the food that they eat, they have to have specific information about food safety,” said Judy Dugan, research director for the Foundation of Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica. “In California, kitchen crops like onions are important to the state economy, and to have people be suspicious of mysterious contamination of this or any other crop only makes things worse, not better.”

In the last year, hundreds of people around the country were infected by food-borne illnesses tied to packaged spinach, green onions and tomatoes, prompting calls for action.

The Gills Onions recall was comparatively minor in that no one became ill, but it did involve deadly bacteria — listeria monocytogenes — that causes listeriosis, a serious infection that can be fatal and affects primarily pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems.

After the recall, Gills had experts inspect its Oxnard facility, Alamo said. They advised Gills how to improve and update equipment but there was “no conclusive evidence of what caused it,” she said.

Gills Onions pulled bags of onions from the market after routine testing by the Washington Agriculture Department detected listeria monocytogenes in one retail package.

The recalled Gills Onions Brand or Sysco Natural Brand bags had a June 16 expiration date.

They were sold at Trader Joe’s and distributed to stores in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington.

The onions, which were grown in the Imperial Valley, were peeled, diced and bagged at Gills’ Oxnard processing plant.

The FDA could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.

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