- After a salmonella outbreak that has so far sickened 46 people and killed one person in 12 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration are asking consumers to avoid and throw away any maradol papayas imported from Mexico, according to Food Safety News.
- The contaminated papayas have been sourced to Grande Produce's Caribeña brand, which officially recalled the papayas last week, Food Safety News reported. However, CDC regulators warn the contamination may also be present in other maradol papayas imported from Mexico. The Associated Press reported regulatory agencies in the U.S. and Mexico are conducting further tests.
- Consumer lawsuits against the importer have already been filed, according to a release from law firm Robins Cloud LLP. The first lawsuit, filed in federal court by a New Jersey consumer who got sick from eating the fruit, accuses Grande Produce of breaching its duty to provide safe food, and asks for an undisclosed amount of financial damages.
While food-contaminating bacteria like salmonella is often associated with undercooked or mishandled meat, salmonella can also contaminate produce in many ways. It can be spread on produce by poor handling, contaminated water or surfaces, and spots that may be starting to go bad. While some of the contamination related to handling can be avoided by washing the fruit before consuming it, the bacteria can also get inside the fruit through soft spots or breakages in the skin. In a recall case where the exact source of the problem is unknown, it makes sense to follow all of regulators' warnings about imported fruit. The situation shows just how widespread — and dangerous — an outbreak can be.
One of the bigger questions here is whether the Food Safety Modernization Act's new Foreign Supplier Verification Program could have stopped this outbreak. The FSVP, which started to go into effect in May, requires all importers to ensure that the food they are importing meets the same safety standards as food produced in the U.S. Since the FSVP is being gradually rolled out, it may not be in effect for these papaya importers yet. Far-reaching produce safety controls, which are included in another section of FSMA, are not required to be followed until December. Until then, there is no requirement for some of the more far-reaching produce safety protocols to be met, according to FDA guidance on the FSVP. While some agricultural states and crops have their own produce safety standards, there will be nothing universal until the FSMA rule takes effect.
A program currently in effect intended to stop contaminated imports from entering the U.S. also might not have worked as planned in this case. The FDA's import alert system is designed to halt all questionable food imports without sampling or inspection — but it allows exemptions for some importers. And while there is currently an import alert for papayas from Mexico, Food Safety News reported that at least one grower with crops distributed by Grande Produce has received an exemption. It is not known if this could be the source of the problematic papayas.
Judging from the outbreak, current food safety provisions are not enough to keep unsafe produce from arriving in the U.S. in the first place. But there are no assurances that all of the FSMA rules would prevent such a case when they finally go into effect. While FSMA is intended to shift the food safety paradigm to illness prevention rather than response, it does take some time for all players in the supply chain to adapt to the rules. Many food safety advocates feel that FSMA's preventive controls, which add more steps to what already-regulated manufacturers need to do, won't have an impact on the number of recalls as manufacturers get used to the law. Importers and growers, who are navigating completely new laws, might experience more of a learning curve. In the meantime, importers, handlers, consumers and retailers should continue to be vigilant about the safety of fruits and vegetables.