Mexican Cilantro Banned After Being Linked to Annual Food Poisoning Outbreaks

Federal regulators are banning the import of cilantro from a particular Mexican state, after an investigation found dire farming conditions that are more than likely responsible for the growth of cyclospora cayetanensis, which have been linked to multiple intestinal illness outbreaks in the U.S. since 2012. 

On July 28, after an investigation into multiple cilantro farms in Mexico found extremely unsanitary conditions, the FDA announced a ban on all cilantro grown on farms in Puebla, Mexico in an effort to prevent Cyclospora outbreaks in the U.S.

Both the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as state health officials, have identified a current cyclospora outbreak in Texas and Wisconsin, which is believed to have stemmed from consumption of cilantro imported from Puebla, Mexico.

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Cyclospora cayetanesis is a human protozoan parasite, which causes intestinal illness with prolonged and severe diarrhea and many flu-like symptoms. The parasite usually requires a period of time outside of its host before it becomes infectious and is known to be a seasonal parasite that thrives in tropical and subtropical regions.

An individual can become infected with C. cayetanensis by ingesting the infective form of the parasite that have had enough time outside of its host. People usually ingest these parasites through drinking water or food that has been contaminated with feces containing the parasite.

The FDA states in their alert that epidemiological evidence collected from states with outbreaks, as well as the CDC’s traceback evaluations, indicating that Puebla, Mexico cilantro was the vehicle for most of the cycloporriasis infections in 2013 and 2014, and the primary source for a large cluster of outbreaks in Texas in 2012. So far this year, 205 cases have been reported in Texas alone.

The FDA believes that it is extremely unlikely that the outbreaks are due to isolated contamination events because of their reoccurring nature in both timing and the evidence pinpointing the provider to be located in Puebla, Mexico from CDC traceback investigations.

The parasite originates from sources of fecal contamination that have shown to be present on the farming and packaging areas in Puebla according to the FDA investigation. Since 2013, the FDA and Mexican regulatory authorities for farms,packaging houses and processors have inspected 11 farms and packaging houses in the state of Puebla in which five of them were linked to outbreaks of cycloporriasis in the U.S.

During their tours of the facilities and farms, federal investigators observed dire conditions including human feces and toilet paper found on the growing fields and around the facilities, inadequately maintained and supplied toilet and hand washing facilities without soap, running water, or toilet paper, and in some cases facilities didn’t offer any washing or toilet facilities. In one report, the FDA recorded that a tank of water used to supply a hand washing station tested positive for C. cayetanensis.

Based on the investigation, the FDA believes from their testing and observation that it would almost be impossible for the parasite not to reach the cilantro from the intestinal tract of humans affecting the growing fields, harvesting, processing, and packaging activities all containing contamination from poor sanitation practices and contaminated irrigation water, and contaminated crop protectant sprays.

Contaminated cilantro is especially dangerous due to the fact that it is usually not cooked to kill harmful bacteria before consumed. In most uses, cilantro is sprayed off before being added to a dish and in many of its common restaurant uses is chopped on cutting boards before being added to meals, posing cross contamination hazards to surface areas and other food items.

The FDA’s is banning all cilantro imported from Puebla, Mexico and warning consumers not to eat any intact or cut cilantro from these areas. However, the agency is allowing cilantro from certain farms still on the “Green List” to be imported and consumed due to those facilities showing high standards of sanitation and processing.

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