Salmonella Outbreak Linked to Onions—a Post-mortem

Reported cases: 1,642
Hospitalizations:
246
States affected:
48
Provinces affected:
7
Infectious agent: Salmonella Newport
Probable source: Red onions produced and packed by Thomson International, Inc. of Bakersfield, CA


Two months after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) declared this outbreak over, its root cause remains a mystery.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has plowed through more than 2,000 samples, testing finished products, swab and environmental samples from Thomson’s packing facility, and environmental samples from the vicinity of the fields where the onions were grown.

FDA labs recovered eleven different Salmonella serotypes from the various environmental samples, according to information obtained by eFoodAlert in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Although Salmonella Newport was found in two samples described as soil/sediment, neither sample yielded the outbreak strain recovered from patients.

Not one of the onions tested in FDA labs were Salmonella-positive.

Not one of the swab samples obtained from inside the Thomson packing facility were Salmonella-positive.

But this is not the whole story. To understand FDA’s findings, it’s important to know more about onions.

The onion

Onions can be grown from seeds, seedlings, or sets (immature onion bulbs). The crop is ready for harvest when at least one-half of the leaves are dead.

In order to ensure an adequate storage life, the onions must be left in the field to “cure” for at least 12–24 hours. This allows the outer skin to dry. Curing is complete when the neck of the onion (the top of the bulb) is dry and tight.

After curing, the onions are “topped” above the neck to remove the leaves, after which they are ready for eating or for extended storage.

Onions are closely related to garlic and, like garlic, onions produce certain essential oils that possess anti-bacterial properties. Although Salmonella can survive on onions, these essential oils complicate the process of detecting the bacteria.

Thomson’s onion operations

Onions are onions, whether grown in a small backyard or in a large commercial field. The same principles apply. The differences are those of scale.

Thomson’s onions are grown from seeds in two different parts of California. The company uses fields both near Bakersfield, where its packing house is located, and just outside Holtville, in California’s Imperial Valley, approximately 330 miles to the south.

When the onion crop is ready for harvest, Thomson’s crews use specialized equipment to dig beneath the bulbs and cut them out of the ground. The onions are left in the field to cure.

Once the onions have cured, a crew of farm laborers works its way through the field, trimming off the tops and bottoms of the onions, culling and discarding damaged onions, and placing the trimmed onions into buckets.

Culled onions and the trimmed-off tops and bottoms are left in the field to be plowed back into the soil when it is prepared for the next crop.

The full buckets are poured into burlap bags, which are left in the field for additional curing.

Once curing is complete, the onions are either shipped in bulk directly to customers or are transported to Thomson’s Bakersfield packing facility, where they are brushed clean and packed for distribution.

What FDA did not find

  • No “egregious” conditions or violations of the Produce Safety Rule
  • No direct evidence of the outbreak strain in bagged onions
  • No direct evidence of the outbreak strain in any environmental samples either at the packing facility or in and around the fields

What FDA found in Bakersfield

  • Cats in and near the onion packing lines
  • Pigeons flying or roosting inside the packing house
  • Apparent bird droppings on and near the onion packing line
  • A thick build-up of dirt and soil on the packing line even after the most recent cleaning/sanitizing activity
  • Rough, dirty weld points on the packing line
  • Inadequate documentation of cleaning/sanitizing activity
  • Swallow nests overhead within a few feet of an onion-packing line
  • Inconsistent cleaning/sanitation Standard Operating Procedures documentation
  • Inconsistent bacteriological testing of agricultural water for coliforms and E. coli.
  • Salmonella in animal scat, drain sediment, and environmental swab sample and on a water filter

What FDA found in Holtville

  • Worn and uneven areas on field packing equipment that could harbor bacteria
  • Indications of bird activity around the fields and equipment
  • Flock of birds (ibis) in field undergoing flood irrigation adjacent to field where onions had been grown
  • Salmonella, including Salmonella Newport, in several soil/sediment samples

And then there’s the water…

Information received under a Freedom of Information Act request is often heavily redacted, as anyone knows who watches The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. This is what FDA’s investigation report had to say about the source of irrigation water used on the onion fields.

It would appear that irrigation water was drawn from a different source than was usual on at least one occasion. The details and date(s) on which this took place were redacted from the report, as was the diagram showing the flow of water from the source to the fields.

Why does this matter?

Irrigation water polluted by runoff from cattle feedlots has been linked to contaminated produce grown in the Salinas and Imperial Valleys in the past. A quick look at a Google map for the areas around Bakersfield and Holtville reveals the presence of feedlots in both vicinities.

The bottom line

As soon as Thomson onions were identified by CDC and FDA as the probable source of the Salmonella Newport outbreak, the company shut down its harvesting and packing operations.

By the time FDA investigators arrived on the scene, there were no field or packing activities for them to observe. The investigators were able to carry out extensive sampling of the equipment surfaces, the environment, and the stored onions, but were unable see either the harvest or packing operations in action.

Although neither FDA nor the Canadian Food Inspection Agency were able to find the outbreak strain in any of the onion samples, all of the epidemiological evidence from both the CDC and the PHAC points to Thomson’s red onions as the source of the outbreak,

The presence of multiple Salmonella-positive environmental samples lends weight to this conclusion, although the actual source of the contamination likely will never be known.

Recalls and Alerts: October 11 – 14, 2020

Here is today’s list of food safety recalls, product withdrawals, allergy alerts and miscellaneous compliance issues. The live links will take you directly to the official recall notices and company news releases that contain detailed information for each recall and alert.

If you would like to receive automatic email alerts for all new articles posted on eFoodAlert, please submit your request using the sidebar link.

United States

Food Safety Recall: Red Monkey Foods, Inc. recalls select Cost Plus, Great Value, O Organics and Full Circle brands of organic parsley and herbes de Provence due to potential Salmonella contamination. Please refer to the recall notice for a complete list of affected products.

Food Safety Recall: Sauer Brands, Inc. recalls certain The Spice Hunter Products due to potential Salmonella contamination. Please refer to the recall notice for a complete list of affected products.

Pet Food Warning Letter: Raw Advantage Processing LLC receives FDA Warning Letter documenting specific violations of the Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis, and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Food for Animals regulation, including the presence of Listeria monocytogenes in six locations in the manufacturing facility.

Canada

Food Safety Alert: CFIA warns the public not to consume and retailers, restaurants and institutions not to sell or use Alwatania brand Liquid Tahini (350g; Best Before 19/05/2021; UPC 6 224007 246221) due to possible Salmonella contamination.

Food Safety Recall: Les Jardins Picoudi recalls MICROPOUSSES BROCOLI  / Broccoli sprouts (75g; Lot #3 272; UPC ​813 526 000 11 5) due to potential Salmonella contamination.

Food Safety Recall Update: Trinity Bakeshop Ltd. recalls certain Trinity Bakeshop Ltd. brand bakery products from the marketplace due to possible Salmonella contamination. Please refer to the recall notice for a complete list of affected products.

Europe

OUTBREAK ALERT (FRANCE): Health authorities report an outbreak of 20 Salmonella Newport infections and 28 Salmonella Typhimurium infections linked to consumption of raw or rare horsemeat.

Allergy Alert (Belgium): Industry recalls Sau Tao Nouilles aux épinards / spinach noodles (454g; Best before 01/09/2021; Product of China) due to undeclared egg.

Allergy Alert (Denmark): Dagrofa A/S recalls Gestus Orient karrysild / Curry herring (250g drained weight; Best before 29/07/2021) due to undeclared egg.

Allergy Alert (Ireland): FSAI alerts consumers to the presence of undeclared mustard in Ahmed Foods Garlic Pickle in Oil and Mango Pickle in Oil. Please refer to the Alert notice for a complete list of affected products.

Allergy Alert (UK): Liroy B.V. recalls Sau Tao (ST) Spinach Noodle (454g; All Best before dates including and after 01 September 2021) due to undeclared egg.

Food Safety Recall (Belgium): Deli Ostrich NV recalls Carrefour Iberico Burger (Lot #5550405; Best before 15/10/2020), Carrefour Iberico Chipolata (Lot #5550405; Best before 14/10/2020 & 15/10/2020) and Carrefour Iberico Gourmet (Lots #5450413 & 5450414; Best before 14/10/2020 & 15/10/2020) due to Salmonella contamination.

Food Safety Recall (Belgium): Jean Gotta recalls Américain nature / ground meat (350g & 1200g; Lot #8404140; Best by 15/10/2020) due to possible Listeria monocytogenes contamination.

Food Safety Recall (France): Bretzel Burgard recalls Burgard brand Mes mini cheeseburgers préférés surgelés x9 / Frozen mini cheeseburgers (145g; Lot #102510143; Best before 01/12/2021) due to foreign matter (metal pieces) contamination.

Food Safety Recall (France): La Salaison du Mont Pilat recalls Salaisons du Mont Pilat brand Saucisson Long bridé Pilat / Long braided sausage (Lot #2022402;  Best  before 17 to 30/11/2020) due to Listeria monocytogenes contamination.

Food Safety Recall (France): La Salaison du Mont Pilat recalls Salaisonniers du Pilat brand Rosette / sausage (420g; Lot #2020407; Best before 20/10/2020 & 27/10/2020) due to Listeria monocytogenes contamination.

Food Safety Recall (France): SuperCasino recalls Tous les jours brand Cervelas Qualité Choix sausage (400 g; Lot 408.38; Best before 30/10/2020) due to Listeria monocytogenes contamination.

Food Safety Recall (France): LeaderPrice recalls Le Prix Gagnant brand Cervelas Qualité Choix sausage (Lot 408.38; Best before 30/10/2020) due to Listeria monocytogenes contamination.

Food Safety Recall (Germany): Die Frischebox GmbH recalls NATUR Lieblinge – Kokosstücke / Natur favorite coconut pieces (100 g; Lot #3501 1177 & 3405 1175; Best before 24.05.2021) due to Salmonella contamination.

Food Safety Recall (Germany): Ehrmann GmbH recalls Almighurt “Himbeere” (150g; Best before 29.10.2020) due to foreign matter (metal) contamination.

Food Safety Recall (Germany): Fromages d’Europe  recalls various Roi de Trèfle and Le Coq de France brands of cheese loafs due to foreign matter (metal) contamination. Please refer to the recall notice for a complete list of affected products.

Food Safety Recall (Italy): ROGNONI recalls ROGNONI brand RASCHERA DOP / cheese (Lot #20254; Best before 10-01-2021) due to Salmonella Brandenburg contamination.

Food Safety Recall (Italy): Caseificio Pascoli SRL recalls various cheese products due to presence of elevated of aflatoxin in the milk. Please refer to the recall page for a complete list of affected products.

Food Safety Recall (Luxembourg): Lidl recalls Brasserie Licorne SAS brand Bière goût Tequila – El Tequito / tequila-flavoured beer (Lots 16102021L1, 22102021L1 & 18112021L1; Best before 16/10/2021, 22/10/2021 & 18/11/2021) due to foreign matter (glass fragments) contamination.

Food Safety Recall (Netherlands): Lidl Nederland recalls El Tequito brand Bier met tequilasmaak 5.9% / tequila-flavoured beer (4 x 0.33cl; Expiration dates 16-10-2021, 23-10-2021, 18-11-2021, 17-10-2021, 06-11-2021, 15-12-2021, 22-10-2021, 07-11-2021, 16-12-2021) due to foreign matter (glass fragments) contamination.

Australia and New Zealand

Allergy Alert (New Zealand): Blue Frog Breakfast Limited recalls Blue Frog brand Zesty Raspberry with Coconut and Toasted Almonds Gluten Free Cereal (350g; Best before 15SEP21) due to undeclared gluten.

Food Safety Recall (New Zealand): Pak’n Save Blenheim recalls specific batches of various Pak’n Save Blenheim brand sliced in-store ready-to-eat meat products due to the possible presence of Listeria monocytogenes. Please refer to the recall notice for a complete list of affected products.

Recalls and Alerts: October 8 – 10, 2020

Here is today’s list of food safety recalls, product withdrawals, allergy alerts and miscellaneous compliance issues. The live links will take you directly to the official recall notices and company news releases that contain detailed information for each recall and alert.

If you would like to receive automatic email alerts for all new articles posted on eFoodAlert, please submit your request using the sidebar link.

United States

OUTBREAK ALERT (Minnesota): Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) reports 9 cases of Salmonella Paratyphi B infections in the state linked to the NéktƏr Juice Bar in Woodbury, MN. Two people have been hospitalized. Health officials say anyone who is experiencing severe symptoms of salmonellosis after consuming menu items from NéktƏr should talk to their health care provider.

OUTBREAK ALERT FINAL UPDATE: CDC reports a total of 1,127 confirmed cases of Salmonella Newport infections and 167 hospitalizations in 48 states. The illness outbreak was linked to red onions from Thomson International, Inc., of Bakersfield, California. FDA, CDC and state investigators have found various Salmonella strains in multiple Thomson International Inc. locations and surrounding areas. The root cause investigation is on-going.

Public Health Alert: FSIS issuesa public health alert for ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and poultry bowl products, produced by Taylor Farms in Dallas, Texas on Oct 5 and Oct 6, 2020, due to concerns that the products may be contaminated with extraneous material, specifically glass. No recall was requested, as it is believed that the products are no longer available for consumers to purchase. Please refer to the Alert for a complete list of affected products.

Allergy Alert: B&G Foods recalls Back to Nature Organic Rosemary & Olive Oil Stoneground Wheat Crackers (6 oz; Best by APR 25 2021; UPC 8-19898-01015-8) due to undeclared peanut.

Pet Food Safety Recall Update: Sunshine Mills, Inc. recalls certain Champ®, Field Trial®, Good Dog, Hunter’s Special®, Old Glory®, Paws Happy Life®, Pet Expert, Principle, Retriever®, River Bend, Sportsman’s Pride®, Sprout®, Thrifty®, Top Runner® or Whiskers & Tails products that were made with corn that contained Aflatoxin at levels above FDA’s action levels. This is an expansion of an earlier recall. Please refer to the FDA Alert for a consolidated list of recalled products.

Canada

Food Safety Recall: Hilly Acres Farm recalls eggs with best before dates from September 2, 2020 to October 31, 2020 inclusively where the lot code contains “38” or “N38” or where there is no lot code on the package due to possible Salmonella contamination. Please refer to the recall notice for a complete list of affected products, which were distributed in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. The recall was triggered by the company’s own test results.

Food Safety Recall: Au Palais sucré recalls certain soups and sauces that were prepared, packaged or stored under conditions that could render the items unsafe for human consumption. Please refer to the recall notice for a complete list of affected products.

Food Safety Recall: Griffith Foods Ltd. recalls various Griffith Foods brand seasonings and sauces due to Salmonella contamination. Please refer to the recall notice for a complete list of affected products.

Europe

Allergy Alert (Belgium): Colruyt recalls Boni Selection houmous mangue-coco / mango-coconut hummus (150g; Use by 27/10/2020) due to undeclared sesame.

Allergy Alert (France): Lidl recalls several batch codes of Select & Go brand Salade Buddha Bowl Chèvre / goat cheese salad bowl due to undeclared peanut. Please refer to the recall notice for a complete list of affected batch codes.

Allergy Alert Update (Ireland): Industry recalls Dunkin Boston Kreme Donuts (148g 2-pack; All date codes) due to undeclared egg, gluten (wheat), milk, nuts (almond, hazelnut, pistachio nut), and soya in the English labeling.

Allergy Alert (Luxembourg): Colruyt recalls Boni Selection houmous mangue-coco / mango-coconut hummus (150g; Use by 27/10/2020) due to undeclared sesame.

Allergy Alert (Netherlands): Lidl recalls Ons & Pond dropstaafjes / licorice bars (250g; Expiry date 11-02-2022) due to undeclared wheat (glluten).

Allergy Alert (UK – Northern Ireland specific): North South Retail recalls Dunkin Boston Kreme Donuts (148g 2-pack; All date codes) due to undeclared egg, gluten (wheat), milk, nuts (almond, hazelnut, pistachio nut), and soya in the English labeling.

Food Safety Recall (Belgium): La Ferme Fromagère de Chertin recalls Boulette de Chertin fromage au lait cru écrémé de vache / skimmed raw cow’s milk cheese (200g; Best before 10.10.2020, 15.10.2020, 18.10.2020, 20.10.2020, 01.11.2020, 05.11.2020, 10.11.2020) due to Listeria monocytogenes contamination.

Food Safety Recall (Denmark): Amanda Seafoods A/S recalls Bornholms Hummersuppe / Lobster soup (375g; Production date 03-04-2020; Time stamps 1432 to 1637) due to inadequate heat processing.

Food Safety Recall (France): La Brasserie Licorne recalls Jalisco brand Bière saveur tequila RED / tequila-flavoured beer (3 x 33 cl; Expiry date 17/10/21) due to foreign matter (glass fragments) contamination.

Food Safety Recall (Germany): Firma Dr. Schröter Feinkost GmbH recalls Mühlenhof Delikatess Kräuterfleischsalat / delicatessen herb meat salad (Best before 24.10.2020) due to foreign matter (transparent pieces of plastic) contamination.

Food Safety Recall (Germany): Teaflower Marktstand Shuster Viktualienmarkt recalls Teaflower Teufelskralle gemahlen / ground devil’s claw (200g; Expiry date 10.22) due to Salmonella contamination.

Food Safety Recall (Italy): CASEIFICIO CEIRANO – VILLOSIO SRL recalls CASEIFICIO CEIRANO – VILLOSIO SRL brand RASCHERA DOP cheese (Lot code 06-06-2020; Best before 09-11-2020) due to Salmonella Brandenburg contamination.

Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands

Pet Food Safety Recall Update: Sunshine Mills, Inc. recalls certain Champ®, Field Trial®, Good Dog, Hunter’s Special®, Old Glory®, Paws Happy Life®, Pet Expert, Principle, Retriever®, River Bend, Sportsman’s Pride®, Sprout®, Thrifty®, Top Runner® or Whiskers & Tails products that were made with corn that contained Aflatoxin at levels above FDA’s action levels. This is an expansion of an earlier recall. Please refer to the FDA Alert for a consolidated list of recalled products. Some of the recalled products were supplied to a distributor in Jordan.

Australia and New Zealand

Allergy Alert (New Zealand): Bin Inn Kapiti recalls Air Popped Buckwheat Seeds (Bullk bins; All batches and dates sold up to and including 9 October 2020) due to undeclared gluten.

Food Safety Recall (New Zealand): Foodstuffs Own Brands Ltd recalls Value Brand Viva Italia Chopped Tomatoes in Juice (400g cans; Batch codes SMS1 J213, TTA1 J214, TTA1 J215, TTA1 J217) due to foreign matter (stones) contamination.

Latin America and the Caribbean

Pet Food Safety Recall Update: Sunshine Mills, Inc. recalls certain Champ®, Field Trial®, Good Dog, Hunter’s Special®, Old Glory®, Paws Happy Life®, Pet Expert, Principle, Retriever®, River Bend, Sportsman’s Pride®, Sprout®, Thrifty®, Top Runner® or Whiskers & Tails products that were made with corn that contained Aflatoxin at levels above FDA’s action levels. This is an expansion of an earlier recall. Please refer to the FDA Alert for a consolidated list of recalled products. Some of the recalled products were supplied to a distributor in Colombia.