Unsanitary Growing Conditions Lead To Partial Import Ban On Mexican Cilantro

Bad news for cilantro lovers: U.S. officials have implemented a partial ban on imports of the herb after health officials linked hundreds of illnesses to cilantro growing in feces- and toilet paper-covered fields in Mexico.

The Food and Drug Administration announced the seasonal import ban after health officials in Texas and Wisconsin identified cilantro grown in the Mexican state of Puebla as a suspect in separate illness clusters, and investigations of local farms and processing plants turned up unsanitary conditions.

Increasing outbreaks of cyclosporiasis – a parasitic illness that causes diarrhea and explosive bowel movements – linked to the herbs have been reported over the last several years.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported receiving 304 cases of cyclosporiasis, while Bloomberg reports 205 cases have been identified so far this year.

According to the ban, from April to August 30 of every year fresh cilantro from the Puebla region will be detained at the border and won’t be allowed into the U.S. without inspection and certification.

Several restaurants – including Chipotle and Taco Bell – that use cilantro in their meals tell Bloomberg they don’t expect to be affected by the partial ban. A spokesperson for Chipotle says their cilantro comes from California.

Starting in 2013, the FDA and Mexican authorities began investigating outbreaks of cyclosporiasis by inspecting farms and packing houses in Mexico to determine the conditions and practices that may have resulted in the contamination of cilantro.

In all, the groups inspected 11 farms and packing houses, of those five were linked to the illnesses and investigators observed questionable conditions at three others.

The inspections found, among other things: human feces and toilet paper in growing fields and around facilities; inadequately maintained and supplied toilet and hand washing facilities or a complete lack of toilet and hand washing facilities; food-contact surfaces – such as plastic crates used to transport cilantro or tables where cilantro was cut and bundled – visibly dirty and not washed; and water used for purposes such as washing cilantro vulnerable to contamination from sewage/septic systems.

“Based on those joint investigations, FDA considers that the most likely routes of contamination of fresh cilantro are contact with the parasite shed from the intestinal tract of humans affecting the growing fields, harvesting, processing or packing activities or contamination with the parasite through contaminated irrigation water, contaminated crop protectant sprays, or contaminated wash waters,” the notice states.

At least 304 people in 19 states came down with cyclosporiasis linked to the herbs last year, seven of those people reported being hospitalized, according to the CDC.

Of those cases, 133 were from Texas and 57% of those people reported having eaten fresh cilantro two to 14 days before becoming six. As a result of that outbreak, Texas health officials and the FDA increased sampling of cilantro from Puebla farms.

The previous year, a cyclosporiasis outbreak in 25 states was linked to Puebla cilantro, as well as salad mix from Taylor Farms de Mexico.

CDC and state and local public health partners say they are continuing surveillance to identify and interview additional ill persons to identify other sources of infection.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest expressed their approval of the FDA’s partial ban on imported cilantro from Puebla, but pointed out that the real challenge facing the agency and other agencies is putting in place standards that prevent the conditions found at the Mexican farms in the first place.

“Produce safety standards that will require foreign farms to meet our safety standards and make importers responsible for assuring they do are due out this fall,” senior food safety attorney David Plunkett said in a statement. “That will help, but Congress also must give FDA the resources it needs to do the inspections that are necessary to stop allowing food grown in disgusting conditions like those found in Mexico from making its way onto American dinner plates.”

Import Alert 24-23 [Food & Drug Administration]
Mexican Cilantro Contamination Spurs Partial U.S. Import Ban [Bloomberg]