Additional Food Safety Measures Needed For Imported Produce

Posted on: Monday, 15 September 2008, 09:05 CDT

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suspects a packing plant in northern Mexico, along with its warehouse in McAllen, Texas, are the sources of the largest U.S. outbreak of food borne illness during the last ten years.  The outbreak infected more than 1,440 people with a rare form of salmonella.

The packing plant sits at the end of a dirt road, where the conveyer belts that process hundreds of tons of vegetables each year for Mexican and U.S. markets are openly exposed to the elements, sheltered only by a corrugated metal roof.

An Associated Press report said the plantís manager confirmed that workers handling chili peppers are not required to separate the vegetables according to the sanitary conditions in which they were grown.  This might explain how such a large outbreak was caused by such a rare strain of salmonella.  The AP probe discovered that while some Mexican producers operate under stringent sanitary conditions, many others do not, but export their produce to the United States nonetheless.

Neither the Mexican or U.S. governments impose safety requirements on farms and processing plants. In fact, Mexican companies need only register online to be able to sell their produce in the United States.  Some Mexican farms and processing plants have set high sanitation standards, certified by private companies, so they can sell to U.S. supermarket chains that wouldn't purchase produce from uncertified ones.

However, there is no public record of those chains that mandate these sanitary practices, therefore there is no way to know whether the produce in a particular store is certified.

The entire U.S. government enforcement is comprised of 625 FDA inspectors who conduct spot checks of U.S. and foreign produce.  However, less than 1 percent of total imports are inspected, and anything beyond that is left entirely to the supermarkets and restaurants.

The top Mexican farmers grow crops in fenced-off fields, using fresh water irrigation and packing their produce in spotless plants with workers dressed in protective gear.  However, plenty of farms remain where unfenced fields allow animals to roam freely and which use untreated water, sometimes laced with sewage.

Salmonella can exist on the skin of produce, or can penetrate the inside of fruits and vegetables.  And while cooking will kill the bacteria, washing raw produce doesn't always eliminate it.  For this reason, safety experts emphasize the importance of preventing such contamination in the first place.

Agricola Zaragoza is one of Mexicoís uncertified plants, manager Emilio Garcia told the AP.  It washes produce from both certified and uncertified producers, opening up the possibility for contamination, he said, while declining to provide details about his suppliers.

The FDA suspects Serrano chilies and Mexican jalapeno processed at Agricola Zaragoza are responsible for the latest outbreak, but it also believes tomatoes may have been involved.   It admits the true source may never be conclusively confirmed.

Cesar Fragoso, president of Mexico's Chili Peppers Growers Association, told the AP most Mexican pepper farms market their produce to distributors without knowing their final destination. For that reason, he said, few go through the process of obtaining certification. 

In addition, significant amounts of produce pass from distributor to distributor on its way to a final destination, something that increases the potential for contamination. These multi-step transit routes also make tracing outbreaks much more difficult. In fact, just 10 percent of outbreaks are ever completely resolved, said former FDA official William Hubbard.

"It is very common for distributors to receive products from numerous sources, numerous farms and in some cases multiple countries," Hubbard told the AP.

"That's just the way produce moves."

In the latest salmonella case, the U.S. federal government traced the suspect jalapenos to two farms in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Both farms shipped through Agricola Zaragoza in nearby Nuevo Leon state, which then shipped the peppers to its warehouse in McAllen, Texas, where the FDA discovered the first contaminated jalapeno pepper.

Though typically not as large-scale, salmonella and other outbreaks are fairly common, with more than 3,000 occurring between 1990 and 2006 from foods regulated by the FDA, according to data from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  These figures include fruits, vegetables and seafood, and contamination within the U.S. and overseas.

Among the cases is a 2004 hepatitis outbreak, linked to Mexican-grown green onions, that resulted in the deaths of four people and that sickened 650 in Pennsylvania.  A nationwide E. coli outbreak in 2006, traced to tainted spinach from California, infected roughly 300 people, killing three. 

The Senate is looking at a bill that would require the FDA to set regulations for guaranteeing safer fresh produce.   In Mexico, a federal produce safety law was passed in 1994, but experts say it is rarely enforced.  

U.S. Produce Marketing Associations vice president Kathy Means told the AP that food safety falls to the food industry, with a majority of major produce buyers requiring both U.S. and foreign producers to conduct third-party audits. But not all buyers follow the same rules, she said.

"It's not government-regulated, so it's up to the company to require it.Ē

Alfonso Alvarez's fenced-off 15-acre farm in Jalisco state contains tomatoes that are grown in greenhouses and irrigated with deep well water.  Workers wear protective hair nets, aprons and gloves, and signs can be seen throughout the facility reminding workers to wash their hands after going to the restroom.

Alvarez sells its crop to a Canadian company, which then imports to the U.S. and Canada.  Alvarez has required his farm to be certified by a private U.S. company.

"Those of us who want to enter the U.S. market and position our brand know we must meet all those standards, because we also know it will be a profitable business in the long run," he told the AP.

"Those who grow in open fields will ruin it for those who produce in greenhouses," he said, "and that's not fair."

He and other Mexican farmers with sanitary farms want the U.S. to establish a certification program for both growers and packing plants.


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