UPDATE: Sept. 8, 2020: There have been 1,012 illnesses in 47 states reported from this outbreak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A total of 136 people have been hospitalized. As of Aug. 31, 457 cases have been reported in Canada, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
UPDATE: August 11, 2020: There have been 640 illnesses in 43 states reported from this outbreak, according to the FDA. A total of 85 people have been hospitalized.
UPDATE: August 10, 2020: Several ready-to-eat meat and poultry products made by Taylor Farms and Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse have also been recalled because they may have been made with the contaminated onions.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified an outbreak of salmonella linked to red onions from Thomson International, Inc., of Bakersfield, California. A total of 396 illnesses across 34 states have been reported. There have been 59 hospitalizations. There is simultaneously an outbreak of salmonella in Canada that CNN reported has a similar genetic fingerprint to the strain identified from California.
- Thompson International announced a voluntarily recall of its red, yellow, white and sweet yellow onions after concerns surfaced about cross contamination. These onions were distributed to wholesalers, restaurants and retail stores in all states.
- The affected onions were distributed in bulk packaging and shipped after May 1. They have been sold under brand names including: Thomson Premium, TLC Thomson International, Tender Loving Care, El Competitor, Hartley’s Best, Onions 52, Majestic, Imperial Fresh, Kroger, Utah Onions and Food Lion.
These California onions have caused foodborne illnesses illness in three-quarters of U.S. states. The widespread geographic range of the products is compounded by the fact that onions are widely used. These onions were also distributed for use in foodservice and restaurants, where onion's source is not easily identifiable by the consumer. The CDC expects to identify more cases, especially because it takes time to connect illnesses to an outbreak.
While neither the CDC nor the company has identified a cause for the onion contamination, the water used for irrigating crops is a focus for the FDA's investigation. Several E. coli outbreaks in romaine lettuce have been tied to fecal matter contaminating irrigation water. A new Environmental Protection Agency-approved protocol for testing pre-harvest agriculture water was announced last week. This could help develop treatments for possible pathogens, but the program is voluntary and requires landowners to grant access to their water source to perform tests, Food Safety News reported.
This testing approach is not the only strategy that the FDA is looking to exercise. At the end of 2019, the agency announced it planned to collect 270 raw post-harvest samples in the California and Arizona growing regions in 2020 to test for salmonella and E. coli. Additionally, the FDA introduced a new tech-focused blueprint to update the Food Safety Modernization Act, which has slowly rolled out since the law was passed in 2011. FSMA's Produce Safety Rule, mandating new requirements for growing, harvesting and handling, as well as training and water testing, is fully effective this year, though it's unclear at this point if it's helped prevent outbreaks.
Despite these safeguards, there is a sense of urgency for manufacturers to control the number of outbreaks. The number of food recalls rose from 2010 to 2015, only to hold at a steady level since 2016, according to Statista data. Beyond the illnesses these pathogens cause, food recalls can also be incredibly damaging to a company’s bottom line. A joint study by the former Food Marketing Institute and former Grocery Manufacturers Association estimated the average cost of a recall to be $10 million in direct costs, plus brand damage and lost sales.
The staggering financial loss associated with a food recall has prompted a more rapid response from both manufacturers and the government in recent years. While in the past, some companies ignored reports of illness rather than proactively responding, today manufacturers are far more prompt in correcting course. That also happened in this case. Within two weeks of the first reports of illness, Thomson International voluntarily pulled all of its onions in a recall to avoid any cross-contamination from the identified source of the outbreak.