Twenty years ago this week began one of the most infamous food safety incidents, an outbreak of hepatitis A at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant outside Pittsburgh. It remains the largest hepatitis A outbreak in American history, and by the time it ended at least 650 people contracted the illness, four died and it helped change the response and regulatory frameworks of this country.
To cut to the chase, the villain was fresh green onions, which the FDA traced back to farms in Mexico. They could have been contaminated because of inadequate sanitation or handwashing, poor hygiene among workers or irrigation of the crops with untreated water.
While green onions appeared in several dishes on the menu, some victims had eaten none of those menu items. Some diners had eaten an entrée with green onions but had not become sick (hint: the entrees were thoroughly cooked). But everybody ate the free salsa placed on each table, which had green onions.
Some of the things that did come of the outbreak:
- It brought attention to the unique dangers of fresh produce and led to the 2008 creation of the Produce Traceability Initiative.
- Its memory was one of the motivators for the FDA’s 2020 produce traceability rule, “Requirements for Additional Traceability Records for Certain Foods.”
- While a hepatitis A vaccine was introduced in 1996, it was used only in limited cases in populations deemed high risk. In 2006, following the Chi-Chi’s outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that all children receive it.
- Chi-Chi's folded. Just a month before, the owners of the restaurant chain had filed for bankruptcy protection. By the time the lawsuits were settled, the chain was out of business.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote a lengthy piece on the outbreak that makes for a good read. Find it here.