It is almost that time of year again. I’m not talking the holidays. I am talking about papaya growing season. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken a preemptive strike on the collective growers in a second Warning Letter. The FDA is taking strides to Stop Salmonella Papaya Outbreaks in their tracks.
Papaya Growers Warned
The first letter, sent in August 2019 made a call to all sectors of the papaya industry to “break the cycle” of the recurring Salmonella outbreaks that have been plaguing the industry since 2011. There have been a pattern of 8 outbreaks in fact. almost 500 people have been sickened and more than 100 hospitalized. There have also been 2 recorded deaths associated with these outbreaks.
As the 2020 papaya growing season looms before us, another letter was released. This one again called out all interested parties in the papaya agricultural scene. The FDA effectively threw down the gauntlet and expects a response.
With all of the healthcare challenges our medical industry is facing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, medical resources are already stretched thin. The FDA also concedes that COVID-19 may also present challenges to the growing sector but makes themselves clear that the expectation is that they do better.
But first, lets talk about Salmonella. Salmonella is a microscopic organism that causes diarrheal illness. It is the bacterium responsible for causing the illness, salmonellosis. Most salmonellosis cases are caused from consuming food or water that has been contaminated with feces that is infected with that bacteria.
If it sounds pretty gross to you, you are right. But it doesn’t take many of those tiny microscopic bugs to get in your system before you start feeling sick. You won’t even see it on your hand or food.
Salmonella is not just found in papayas. Some of the more commonly known offenders include: raw fruits and vegetables, unpasteurized dairy products and juices, raw or undercooked poultry or meat, and eggs.
Symptoms vary in severity and are dependent on the individual’s immune system at the time of infection and the spread of bacteria withing the body. Most people will experience symptoms around 12 to 72 hours after exposure and illness can last anywhere from four to seven days.
Typical symptoms include:
- Stomach cramps
- Severe headaches
- Diarrhea (sometimes bloody)
How It’s Spread
Salmonella can be spread directly or indirectly. The bacteria lives in contaminated animal poop but can also spread through a contaminated irrigation water source.
Cross-contamination is another easy transmission vehicle. Contaminated raw food that comes in contact with cooked or ready-to-eat food can spread the bacteria around. Raw meat is a biggie. If juices from raw meats drip onto your cold potato salad, you have a big problem on your hands. Dried juices from a meat package can still be dangerous. Placing an apple on that shelf at a later date and improperly washing it can make you sick as well.
Using the same cutting board to cut raw meat and then veggies, improperly washed cutlery, the possibilities are everywhere. This is why we have to stay vigilant. Particularly because, as in the case of papayas, sometimes produce comes to us grossly contaminated. This is why washing produce is so important.
Use a scrub brush if fruit or vegetable skin is hearty. Scrub under fresh running water to ensure produce is safe for consumption.
You should always assume any produce you bring home is contaminated and wash it accordingly, though growers and distributors have an obligation to ensure the product that makes its way into the consumers’ homes are as safe as possible. Sometimes mistakes are made, and recalls are necessary. Sometimes, mistakes happen regularly and end up with 8 outbreaks in the same number of growing seasons. For this reason, the FDA has thrown down the gauntlet.
FDA Throws Down the Gauntlet
Short of an ultimatum, the FDA issued a warning letter to everyone involved. In fact, the letter was addressed to “Papaya Growers, Harvesters, Packers, Distributors, Exporters, Importers, and Retailers.”
The letter was sent to everyone who may have anything to do with papayas this year and called them by name, including:
- The National Papaya Board of Mexico
- Fresh Produce Association of the Americas
- Texas International Produce Association
- Produce Marketing Association
- Food Marketing Institute
- Associated Wholesale Grocers
- International Foodservice Distributors Association
- National Grocers Association
- National Restaurant Association
- Consumer Brand Association
- Florida Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association
- California Fresh Fruit Association
- Western Growers
- American Association of Exporters and Importers
- Express Association of America
- National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association
- National Council of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA)
- National Association of Produce Market Managers
In this letter published on June 25, 2020 begins by acknowledging two primary partners – the National Service of Agro-Alimentary Health, Safety and Quality (SENASICA) and the Federal Commission for the Protection of Sanitary Risks (COFEPRIS) along with the produce industry and what they have done over the past year to develop food safety best practices for the papaya industry to follow. The letter also acknowledged the joint international effort in the FDA’s Latin America Office, which has worked with the Mexican government and the papaya industry across the border. Also, the letter mentioned the Texas International Produce Association and United Fresh Produce Association in their publication “Food Safety Best Practices Guide for the Growing and Handling of Mexican Papaya, First Edition,” which was a collaborative effort between the FDA, USDA, SENASICA, and the papaya industry across the United States and Mexico.
A Call to Action
The letter presses the interested parties to join the call to action. “With the 2020 growing season upon us, we are reaching out again to stress the importance of following the latest best practices and proactively working to keep papayas free of contamination.
Key areas of the call to action include:
- Identifying and implementing improved production and prevention practices in the areas of growing, harvesting, and packing whole, fresh papayas.
- Disseminating these best practices throughout the entire supply chain and encouraging buyers to incorporate them into their purchasing specifications and audit programs.
- Examine and monitor the water used to grow, spray, move, wash, rinse, or wax crops to identify and minimize risks.
- Assess factors that make crops vulnerable to contamination.
- Perform root cause analysis to determine if additional measures are needed and implement these practices as appropriate.
- Incorporate traceability best practices and technologies to allow quick access to information about key data elements throughout the process from farm to fork.
- Fund and actively engage additional food safety research.
- Comply with all relevant regulations.
The letter ends with a new update. “We are committed to protecting consumers from unsafe foods, no matter where in the world they are produced,” hinting at the new FDA country-wide Import Alert on whole, fresh papayas grown in Mexico.
It closes on a positive note. “Our hope is that 2020 will be the year when our collective efforts to prevent outbreaks are successful, and American consumers can enjoy papayas, confident in their safety.
Will You Be Eating Papayas This Year?
The question consumers have to ask themselves, is whether or not they intend to eat papayas imported from Mexico. Personally, I would like to think they have figured it all out by now. But I may just wait and see, and keep my fingers crossed that they stop salmonella papaya outbreaks.