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The Mexican government still appears unconvinced that papayas grown in Mexico are to blame for an outbreak of Salmonella Agona that has, at last count, sickened 99 or more people in 23 US states.

When news of the outbreak first was released by FDA and the CDC in late July, Mexico replied that it was “premature” to blame their papayas for the illnesses. Since that time, FDA and the Mexican government have been cooperating in an investigation of Agromod Produce, Inc. (McAllen, TX), the importer whose papayas were implicated in the outbreak. Agromod recalled all of its papayas from the US and Canadian markets on July 23, 2011.

The joint USA/Mexico investigation, however, revealed a problem that is much broader in scope than papayas from a single producer/importer. As part of the investigation, FDA sampled papayas from every growing region of Mexico. More than 15% of the samples – 33 out of 211 samples – contained Salmonella. Positive samples originated from 28 different firms and from nearly every growing region in Mexico.

With these findings in hand, FDA has issued Import Alert 21-17, COUNTRYWIDE DETENTION WITHOUT PHYSICAL EXAMINATION OF PAPAYA FROM MEXICO. Under this Alert, the onus is on the importer to provide evidence, through third-party lab analysis, that each shipment of papayas is Salmonella-free before the papayas are permitted to enter the USA. According to the terms of the Import Alert, a firm can request removal from the detention order by providing “…documentation with sufficient evidence that future shipments of their papaya will not be adulterated. FDA may consider five consecutive commercial shipments over a period of time, analyzed as described in the preceding paragraph, as being adequate for removal…”

Despite the documented finding of widespread Salmonella contamination in Mexican papayas, the Mexican government seems unconvinced of the link between its papayas and the outbreak of Salmonella Agona in the USA. The Secretaria de Agricultura, Ganaderia, Desarrollo Rural, Pesca y Alimentacion released this statement on its website today (loosely translated with the aid of Google):

“Today the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued an import alert on Mexican papayas, arguing that from May 2011 to date  it has detected the presence of ” Salmonella spp “in 33 samples out of 211 (15.6%) from 28 exporting companies.

This alert means that this agency of the United States federal government will increase control over all shipments of papaya at the ports of entry from Mexico into the USA.

Producers who apply preventive measures to reduce the risk of contamination and document at least five successive Salmonella-negative shipments of papaya may be permitted to return to the prior random system of review.

It is important to highlight that the export sector, in coordination with, and with the support of, SENASICA will implement a nation-wide action plan in order to correct those elements that favor the presence of “Salmonella” along the entire supply chain, and also to strengthen the nation’s traceability system. This action plan is available on the website http://www.senasica.gob.mx

It should be noted that recent reports of outbreaks of “Salmonella” in the U.S., allegedly linked to Mexican papaya, cannot be linked with certainty to those papayas inspected [by FDA] in Mexico during the May to August 2011 investigation period.

According to the Federal Commission for Protection against Health Risks (COFEPRIS), it is recommended that people follow good hygienic handling practices of all consumer products in the home, and personal hygiene in food preparation, [including] washing hands with soap and water before eating and after using the bathroom.”

Note the disclaimer in the penultimate paragraph, casting doubt on the link between Mexican papayas and the US outbreak of Salmonella Agona!

For those who prefer to read the original, following is the Spanish text of the Mexican statement:

“El día de hoy la Administración de Alimentos y Medicamentos de los Estados Unidos (FDA, por su siglas en inglés) emitió una alerta sobre la importación de las papayas de origen mexicano argumentando que desde mayo de 2011 a la fecha ha detectado la presencia de “Salmonella spp” en 33 muestras de un total de 211 (15.6%) procedentes de 28 empresas exportadoras.

Esta alerta implica para el sector exportador nacional que esa agencia gubernamental de los Estados Unidos de América incrementará los controles de revisión a todos lo contendedores de papaya procedentes de México al momento de ingresar al territorio estadounidense.

La aplicación de las medidas preventivas que reduzcan el riesgo de contaminación y la generación de registros prevalecerán hasta en tanto los exportadores demuestren que al menos cinco embarques den resultado negativo a la presencia de ese organismo patógeno y con ello gestionar su liberación de esa alerta, lo que significa que se podrá volver al sistema aleatorio de revisión.

Es importante resaltar que el sector exportador de este producto en coordinación y apoyo del SENASICA instrumenta un plan de acción de alcance nacional con la finalidad corregir aquellos casuales que favorecen la presencia de “Salmonella spp” a lo largo de toda la cadena de suministro, así como el reforzamiento del sistema de trazabilidad en el territorio nacional. Este plan de acción está disponible en el sitio web http://www.senasica.gob.mx

Cabe precisar que los recientes reportes de brotes de “Salmonella spp” en Estados Unidos, presuntamente asociados a papaya mexicana, no pueden ser vinculados con certeza a lo inspeccionado en un periodo de estudio que va de mayo a agosto de 2011 en nuestro país.

De acuerdo con la Comisión Federal para la Protección contra Riesgos Sanitarios (COFEPRIS), se recomienda a la población seguir las buenas prácticas de manejo higiénico de todos los productos de consumo en el hogar, así como la higiene personal de quienes preparan los alimentos: lavarse las manos con agua y jabón antes de comer y después de ir al baño.”

CDC last updated its Investigation Report on July 26, 2011. As of that date, federal and state agencies had confirmed 99 cases of the Salmonella Agona outbreak strain from 23 states: 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 (7), Ohio (1), Oklahoma (1), Pennsylvania (2), Tennessee (1), Texas (25), Virginia (2), Washington (5), and Wisconsin (2). Ten people – 10% of the outbreak victims – were hospitalized.

Distribution of Salmonella Agona illnesses per CDC report

FDA import policy is ass-backwards. The agency operates on an “innocent until proven contaminated” basis, which has contaminated food into the country time and again. Instead, FDA should adopt an approach that is similar to Australia’s.

Australia requires importers to submit analytical test results for all microbiologically sensitive food products – or countries – before the foods are allowed to enter distribution. After a certain number of sequential import shipments pass the test, the required frequency of testing is reduced – until a shipment fails. At that point, more stringent testing is reinstated.

If this system had been in place, the contaminated papayas would have been detected and refused entry into the USA. A Salmonella outbreak that sickened at least 99 people and hospitalized ten of them would have been averted. And the safety of our food supply would have been improved.

Is that too much to ask?

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