The largest documented foodborne hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history occurred in November 2003. The source of that outbreak was green onions from a farm in Mexico. Two biomarkers were used to determine ways in which hepatitis A virus (HAV) can contaminate onions. Fluorescent microspheres (1.0 to 10 μm) and HAV vaccine were placed on the soil and the surfaces of pot-grown onions and in the liquid medium of hydroponically cultivated onions. Reverse transcription PCR (RTPCR) was used to identify HAV RNA. Microspheres were found on the outside and inside of the pot-grown onions for up to 60 days. RT-PCR revealed HAV RNA from the vaccine in well-washed green onions. In the hydroponically grown onions, microspheres were found throughout the onion after only 1 day. RT-PCR also revealed HAV RNA inside the hydroponically grown onions. Both biomarkers support the hypothesis that HAV can contaminate the inside of the growing onion and can be taken up intracellularly through the roots. Once inside, the particles are impossible to remove by cleaning.

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