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FOR RELEASE: November 18, 2003
CONTACT: Pamela Williams
Office of Communications
405/271-5601

State Health Officials Issue Advisory on Eating Raw Green Onions

At least four states are reporting hepatitis A outbreaks associated with eating raw or undercooked green onions, prompting Oklahoma State Department of Health officials to advise Oklahoma consumers to use caution when eating raw or undercooked green onions not locally grown.

Hepatitis A outbreaks associated with eating raw or undercooked fresh fruit and vegetable products have been documented previously. To minimize the risk of illness, state health officials say that when preparing foods at home that contain green onions, the onions should be cooked thoroughly. When eating out, consumers should specifically request that raw or lightly cooked green onions not be added to their food. Foods such as freshly prepared salsa and green salads often contain raw green onions.

Also known as scallions, spring onions, or chives, green onions have small, bright white bulbs and long, cylinder-shaped dark-green ends. The white bulbs as well as the green tops are often chopped and used in fresh or lightly cooked dishes. Because of their shape, it is difficult to thoroughly clean green onions by washing the surface of the vegetable.

The federal Food and Drug Administration is now investigating the source of the green onions associated with the outbreaks and how they became contaminated, so that corrective action can be taken. In at least one state, Tennessee, the source of the green onions was Mexico.

Other states reporting hepatitis A outbreaks associated with contaminated green onions are North Carolina, Georgia, and possibly Pennsylvania, although that outbreak is still under investigation. Three persons have died and more than 400 persons have become ill from hepatitis A linked to eating at a restaurant in western Pennsylvania.

Hepatitis A is a liver disease that develops within two to six weeks of an exposure. It is characterized by jaundice (yellow discoloration of the skin), fatigue, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea, and fever. Hepatitis A can occasionally be severe, especially in people with existing liver disease, such as persons with chronic hepatitis B infection, chronic hepatitis C infection, autoimmune disorders that affect the liver, and persons with cirrhosis or liver damage due to alcohol and drug abuse.

Consumers who have recently eaten raw or lightly cooked green onions do not need to take any specific measures, but should monitor their health. State health officials caution, however, that persons with chronic liver diseases should not eat fresh green onions unless they are grown locally.

Consumers who are experiencing symptoms that could be hepatitis A should consult their health care provider or their local health department.

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