The Food and Drug Administration, citing eight foodborne illness outbreaks linked to papayas since 2011, has alerted all handlers of the fruit that repeated outbreaks are unacceptable and the industry must take action to step up food safety efforts.
The papaya industry also needs to fund research to determine how best to prevent outbreaks, according to the FDA.
In an Aug. 26 letter addressed to all links in the papaya supply chain, from growers to importers to retailers, the FDA’s Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy, and Melinda Plaisier, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, issued a call to action for the papaya industry.
In the letter, the FDA outlined steps the industry should take:
- Assess factors that make crops susceptible for contamination, and undergo a “root cause” analysis in the event a pathogen is detected.
- Examine the use and monitoring of water used to grow, spray, move, rinse or wax papayas to minimize risks.
- Enhance traceability so authorities can trace the source of fruit during outbreaks.
- Fund and use food safety research to identify potential sources of pathogens and develop preventive controls.
“Rest assured that the FDA intends to use all the tools and enforcement powers we have available to further strengthen safeguards and prevent contaminated papayas from being imported into the U.S.,” according to the letter. “Those tools include education, outreach, training, enforcement and research activities designed to support farmers’ efforts to keep their crops safe for consumers.”
The FDA sent the letter to 17 organizations, including:
- Propaya, the National Papaya Board of Mexico
- Fresh Produce Association of the Americas
- Texas International Produce Association
- Produce Marketing Association
- United Fresh Produce Association
- Food Marketing Institute
- Associated Wholesale Growers
- Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association
According to the letter, the first seven salmonella outbreaks account for almost 500 illnesses and two deaths, all traced to Mexico or suspected of being associated with papayas from Mexico. An eighth outbreak, of more than 70 cases of Salmonella Uganda, is suspected to involved Cavi brand papayas from Mexico.
An FDA inspection team has been to the packinghouse and farm where the Cavi brand papayas were grown, and the agency will release its finding when its investigation is complete, according to the article.
“As Mexico is the largest supplier of papaya to U.S. consumers, we are actively engaged with our regulatory counterparts in the Mexican government in investigating this current outbreak and are working together to prevent any future outbreaks related to contaminated papaya,” according to the letter.
Papaya distributor responds
Agroson’s LLC, the Bronx, N.Y., distributor of Cavi brand papayas released a statement in connection with the FDA’s notice to the papaya industry.
“While we respect the FDA’s process and concern for public safety, we are confident that our Cavi brand Papayas are safe for consumption and are not contaminated at this time,” according to the statement, attributed to a spokesperson at the Davidson Law Group, the Miami attorneys that represent Agroson’s.
As of the last update from the FDA, the agency had not found traces of salmonella on Cavi brand fruit. According to the agency, the link to the specific brand was made through interviewing people who became ill.
“ … Repeated, direct testing conducted by the FDA has shown no trace of bacteria in our product,” according to Agroson’s statement. “FDA continues to sample our shipments and release it into the U.S. for sale, finding no positive sample to Salmonella. FDA’s epidemiological and traceback evidence is tenuous and insufficient to establish a causal link to the outbreak.”
Cavi brand and other papayas were implicated in an outbreak in 2017, and the company recalled papayas after testing confirmed a positive identification of salmonella.
“The current claims against our product are not under the same circumstances,” according to the statement. “If we ever believe our product has the potential to be contaminated, we voluntarily recall the product until our investigation into the source of the salmonella outbreak is complete.”
The company plans to file a response to the FDA letter and “continue defending ourselves and our brand vigorously, in court if need be,” according to the statement.