On Saturday, July 23rd, Agromod Produce, Inc. (McAllen, TX) recalled all Blondie, Yaya, Mañanita and Tastylicious brand Fresh, Whole Papayas sold prior to July 23, 2011, after FDA found Salmonella Agona in two papaya samples – one collected at Agromod’s McAllen facility and the other at the US border destined for Agromod. The recalled papayas were distributed nationally in the US and in Canada.

In a Press Release issued this morning, FDA reports that both samples tested positive for the strain of Salmonella Agona that has been recovered from 97 reported cases of salmonellosis in 23 states across the USA. In addition, ten other papaya samples from Mexico tested positive with other strains of Salmonella; those shipments were prevented from entering the US.

Since January 1, 2011, illnesses associated with this outbreak have been reported by Arkansas (1), Arizona (3), California (7), Colorado (1), Georgia (8), Illinois (17), Louisiana (2), Massachusetts (1), Minnesota (3), Missouri (3), Nebraska (2), Nevada (1), New Jersey (1), New Mexico (3), New York (6), Ohio (1), Oklahoma (1), Pennsylvania (1), Tennessee (1), Texas (25), Virginia (2), Washington (5), and Wisconsin (2). Ten of the 97 outbreak victims were hospitalized. Forty-one of patients are younger than 5 years old. Fifty-seven percent (57%) of those interviewed reported having eaten papaya.

Finally, FDA concludes its information report with the following statement:

“Epidemiologic, laboratory and traceback information identifies papayas from Mexico imported through Agromod Produce, Inc. as a likely source of infection.”

I contacted Agromod yesterday by email and learned from Mr. Raul Magaña Compean that the company was notified of FDA’s findings late on July 22nd. The company announced its blanket recall the following day. “Agromod,” Mr. Magaña told me, “has been collaborating with FDA at all extent in order to prevent any risk to consumers.”

Agromod is a papaya grower, with its largest production area located in the Mexican South West. As far as Mr. Magaña is aware, there have been no Salmonella outbreaks in that region. He went on to say that their packing process at the point of origin is carried out under strict control. “We believe,” he added, “product could [have] been contaminated by the freight carriers.”

I have also been in touch with the heath authorities in some states and have gleaned a few additional details on the outbreak and its association with papayas.

  1. Three of the six New York cases are from outside of New York City and are being handled by the New York State Department of Health (DOH). The DOH reports that it has not “…confirmed that any of these cases consumed papaya being recalled.
  2. Oklahoma’s lone outbreak-associated cases is a three-year old child. The parents report that the child did not consume papayas.
  3. Virginia has two outbreak-associated cases, one of whom was hospitalized. Neither of the two victims recalled eating papayas.
  4. Of the five victims in Washington State – four adults and one child – two were exposed during travel to Mexico. The Washington cases appear to be connected to papaya consumption although, according to the Washington State Department of Health, one of the five people was not available for an interview.
  5. Kentucky has reported one case of Salmonella Agona, although the state has not yet received confirmation linking the case to the multi-state outbreak. The patient gave no indication of having eaten papaya.
  6. Two of Arizona’s three cases reported papaya consumption. One of the three Arizona victims was hospitalized, but has been released.
  7. Seventeen (17) cases of outbreak-related Salmonella Agona illnesses were reported from several parts of Illinois, including Chicago (5), Cook-suburban (4), DuPage (4), Kane (1), Lake (1), Will (1) and Winnebago (1). Eight of the 17 Illinois victims were hospitalized.
  8. Nebraska’s two cases include one adult (who was hospitalized and later released) and one child. One of the two victims recalled having eaten papaya.

Why are nearly half of the outbreak victims not reporting having eaten papaya? Does this mean that papaya is NOT the source of the nearly seven-month long outbreak. Or is there another explanation?

Agromod ships its papayas – directly or via distributors and wholesalers – to retail supermarket chains, restaurants and hotel chains across the US and Canada. I wonder how many of the outbreak victims consumed a fresh fruit salad, either at a restaurant or purchased ready-made from a supermarket or snack bar. It’s probable that many of these victims consumed papaya in the fruit salad without realizing it. I fully expect this papaya recall to expand during the next several days.

As for the source of the contamination, Agromod’s packing process includes a washing step. I would urge the company to examine very carefully its washing practices, including:

  • Is fresh potable water used to wash the papayas?
  • Is the correct level of active chlorine or other disinfectant being maintained in the wash water?
  • How often is the water changed?
  • How is the water circulated? Proper practice is to circulate the water in the opposite direction to the flow of the produce. That way, the cleanest water contacts the cleanest fruit and doesn’t recontaminate the surface of the washed fruit.

This outbreak has been active for several months. It is not due to a single contaminated shipment of produce. Agromod will need to review all of its production and packing procedures – including, but not limited to the washing issues I’ve raised – to locate the source of this persistent contamination problem.

To read all of my posts on the Salmonella Agona outbreak, just click the Salmonella Agona Outbreak tag at the bottom of this article or in the right-hand column.