Mexican food has certainly been known to wreak havoc on weak stomachs, but for some consumers of cilantro, it may be more than just the spices that has caused indigestion. The Food and Drug Administration issued an import ban on cilantro yesterday from the Mexican state of Puebla after U.S. and Mexican authorities investigated 11 farms in the state, finding “objectionable conditions” on eight of them. Water tests on five of the farms were positive for cyclospora cayetanensis, a parasite that causes severe, but temporary stomach illness. Tracebacks from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) determined that Cilantro from these farms to be the root cause of hundreds of stomach illnesses caused by cyclospora in the U.S. from 2013 to 2014, as well as being suspected in current outbreaks in Texas and Wisconsin. The parasite from the cilantro is also suspected for a cluster of illnesses in Texas in 2012.
The FDA along with the Mexican health and agricultural agencies, SENASICA and COFEPRIS, inspected the Puebla farms between 2013 and 2015. Investigators found human feces and toilet paper in fields on several occasions. They also discovered that the crates carrying bushels of cilantro were “visibly dirty and not washed.” According to the FDA’s import alert, “the most likely routes of contamination of fresh cilantro are contact with the parasite shed from the intestinal tract of humans affecting the growing fields, harvesting, processing or packing activities or contamination with the parasite through contaminated irrigation water, contaminated crop protectant sprays, or contaminated wash waters.” According to the FDA’s alert, the agencies discovered “inadequately maintained and supplied toilet and hand washing facilities (no soap, no toilet paper, no running water, no paper towels) or a complete lack of toilet and hand washing facilities.”
The FDA banned importing the cilantro from Puebla between the months of April and August, which coincides with the timing of the outbreaks. The ban will continue during the summer months in future years until the facilities can prove to health authorities that the food is safe. Cyclosporiasis is the technical name of the illness caused by the parasite, which usually causes vomiting and diarrhea about a week after food containing the parasite is ingested. The CDC states that the 2013 cyclosporiasis outbreak sickened 631 people in 25 states 2013, and that the 2014 outbreak made 304 people sick in 2014. About 210 people have been sickened this year in Texas. Cyclosporiasis is common in tropical and subtropical regions, but despite the outbreaks, it is typically not endemic to the U.S.
The ban covers fresh cilantro whether it is whole or chopped, as the FDA states that chopping the cilantro increases the chance for both contamination and cross contamination with other products. The FDA however, has not banned multi-ingredient food items containing cilantro, nor does it cover non-fresh (i.e. dried) cilantro products. The FDA is now requiring cilantro importers to provide documentation such as bills of lading that prove their cilantro is not sourced from Puebla. According to the alert, the “FDA has found that firms producing cilantro in the state of Puebla often do business under multiple names, addresses, and registration numbers, and some firms declaring their suppliers to be located outside of the state of Puebla have in fact been sourcing cilantro, at least in part, from the state of Puebla.”
Christian Science Monitor – Lisa Suhay
CNN – AnneClaire Stapleton
Food and Drug Administration – Import Alert
Washington Times/Associated Press – Mary Clare Jalonick