Late this past Friday afternoon, the CDC stepped out to warn many Americans not to eat Mexican-grown papayas out of fear the imported fruit may have Salmonella Uganda contamination.
That warning is proving controversial with Mexico, according to some domestic growers and a top food safety advocate in Congress. There’s yet not been a specific recall.
Mexico’s National Service of Health, Food Safety, and Food Quality, known as SENASICA, said linking that’s country’s papayas with the eight-state Salmonella Uganda outbreak in the United States is “premature.” The Mexican agency said none of its papayas have yet tested positive for the rare strain of Salmonella.
Connecticut, Massachusets, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island residents were explicitly warned not to eat any whole fresh papayas from Mexico. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned people in those states because 60 of the 62 Salmonella infected patients are from that cluster of Northeast states. Flordia and Texas each have one Salmonella patient associated with the outbreak.
Two Florida-based papaya importers claim they are not involved. Brooks Tropicals and HLB Specialties LLC told The Packer, a leading print news source for the fresh fruit and vegetable industries, said it is not their outbreak. Brooks imports from Guatemala and Brazil. HLB imports from Guatemala, Brazil and Mexico.
Hawaii’s papaya growers have made it a point to say their island-grown fruit is safe.
All that raises questions about how much cooperation the Food and Drug Administration is going to get from the industry during the outbreak traceback investigation. The FDA would like to see importers, suppliers, distributors, retailers, restaurants, and the foodservice sector to bring all imported Mexican papayas to a halt in the U.S.
CDC’s warning against eating Mexican papayas is likely being heeded nationwide.
Papaya outbreaks originating in Mexico have occurred with a regular frequency every summer since 2011. With 14 patients in her home state, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, this year had decided to seek answers to some questions.
DeLauro, the vice-chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that funds FDA, questioned whether consumers were told “as soon as possible” about the Salmonella Uganda outbreak and its apparent connection to Mexican papayas.
In a letter to acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, DeLauro raises multiple questions, some of which push back on the ease Mexico papayas have in getting across the border.
During the 2017 season, four separate outbreaks involving different Salmonella strains sent 250 people to hospitals and caused two deaths. DeLauro said FDA promised to increase screening at the border.
“How long did this enhanced screening continue?” she asks. “What other steps, if any, has the FDA taken since 2017 to strengthen requirements for imported papayas? What other steps, if any, has the FDA considered talking as a result of the ongoing outbreak?”
DeLauro also wants to know if papaya importers currently are complying with the Foreign Supplier Verification Rule and what does FDA require as verification that a papaya supplier has controlled Salmonella hazards in its fruit.
The representative also asked if FDA plans to do risk-based food safety inspections on the papaya farms of Mexico or any other foreign country. She also wants to know if FDA ever visited the four farms responsible for the 2017 outbreaks.
The CDC reported that its epidemiologic evidence along with the early product distribution information indicates that whole, fresh papayas imported from Mexico and sold in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, are a likely source of the outbreak.
In interviews, ill people answered health department questions about the foods they ate and other exposures in the week before they became sick. Of 21 people interviewed, 16, or about 75 percent, reported eating papayas. This proportion was significantly higher than results from a survey of healthy Hispanic people in the months of January through June in which 13 percent reported eating papayas in the week before they were interviewed.
Investigators also found two people who lived in different households got sick in Connecticut after eating papayas purchased from the same grocery store location in the week before becoming ill. This provides additional evidence that papayas are a likely source of this outbreak. One ill person in Florida had traveled to Connecticut in the week before they got sick. Officials are working to gather more information about an ill person in Texas.
The FDA and regulatory officials in several states are collecting records to determine the source of the papayas that ill people ate. Early product distribution information available at this time indicates that papayas that made people sick were imported from Mexico. This traceback investigation is ongoing.
llnesses in the current outbreak started on dates ranging from January 14, 2019, to June 8, 2019. Most illnesses have occurred since April 2019. Ill people range in age from 1 to 86 years, with a median age of 60. Fifty-three percent of ill people are female. Of 35 people with available information, 23 (66 percent) have been hospitalized. No deaths attributed to the Salmonella have been reported. Of 33 ill people with available information, 22 (67 percent) reported being of Hispanic ethnicity.
Illnesses might not yet be reported due to the time it takes between when a person becomes ill and when the illness is reported. This takes an average of 2 to 4 weeks. Please see the Timeline for Reporting Cases of Salmonella Infection for more details.
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