One year ago, more than 600 people were sickened from hepatitis A-tainted green onions served at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant. Four of the victims would later die.
Since then, the Louisville, Ky.-based Chi-Chi’s chain has vanished and more than 300 legal claims have been settled for about $10 million. But most importantly, experts and industry officials say, the produce industry and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are working together to make the nation’s fresh fruits and vegetables safer than ever.
In 1997, the FDA set food safety and cleanliness guidelines for farmers and packers after a series of food poisoning outbreaks linked to fresh produce. This summer, a new Produce Safety Action Plan was adopted to cover the entire supply chain – right down to retail outlets.
Although the guidelines are voluntary, food safety experts say they will help an industry already policing itself in the wake of lawsuits spawned by tainted tomatoes, cantaloupes, alfalfa sprouts, green onions and other items in recent years.
Chi-Chi’s, or what remains of it on paper in bankruptcy court, has sued Castellini Co. of Wilder, Ky., for allegedly supplying the tainted onions.