The Food and Drug Administration has released results of hot pepper and avocado pathogen testing under a program that shines a spotlight on select fruits and vegetables to examine possible food safety issues.
The program samples selected fresh produce over about 18 months to detect common factors, including origin, variety and season, associated with pathogen findings. Overall, the FDA placed import alerts on companies that shipped 10 lots of peppers and three lots of avocados, which means the agency has enough evidence for Detention Without Physical Examination of products and companies must undergo follow-up audits for future imports.
When the FDA detected pathogens on imported peppers and avocados, those shipments were rejected at entry points, and in some cases worked with companies in the U.S. and exporting countries to recall products. The agency also followed up with increased testing of products from companies that shipped tainted product.
The FDA tested 1,615 jalapenos, habaneros and other hot peppers over about 18 months starting in November 2015. Tests focused on salmonella and E. coli, and 80% of the peppers were imported. According to the FDA report, the agency found:
- Overall prevalence of salmonella in pepper samples was 2.85%.
- No E. coli O157:H7 detections, but there was one sample with another less-harmful E. coli strain.
- Prevalence of salmonella on imported peppers was 3.48% (46 of 1,293 tests) and 0.31% on domestic peppers, with just one positive sample.
- 2.61% of samples from Mexico (29) had salmonella, and 8.33% of peppers from the Dominican Republic (seven) tested positive.
Based on the results, the FDA placed two Dominican Republic companies on an import alert, and sponsored training for growers, packers and truckers. The country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries started its own testing program, according to the FDA report, and no salmonella was found on peppers in 2017.
The FDA placed seven Mexican companies on import alert, and its counterpart in Mexico, SENASICA, followed up with testing of water, food contact surfaces, peppers and other areas. No salmonella was found during those visits, according to the FDA.
A Haitian exporter also was placed on an import report.
Starting in May 2014, the FDA began testing the skin of whole, fresh avocados. The agency tested 1,615 samples for salmonella and listeria. Of those, 70 were imported, according to the agency’s report.
After three months of testing the skin, the agency switched the focus to avocado pulp; at the time no listeria monocytogenes illnesses were linked to the outside of the fruit.
The avocado testing program found that:
- The overall prevalence of salmonella was 0.74%.
- Listeria monocytogenes in avocado pulp samples was 0.24% and on the skin was 17.7%.
- Whole genome sequencing showed that some of the salmonella strains in pulp and skin samples were “highly related” to some strains in ill people, but epidemiological information didn’t prove avocados were implicated in those cases.
- All three Listeria monocytogenes-positive tests of avocado pulp were from imported fruit.
- Of the 64 positive avocado skin samples, 33 were U.S. avocados and 31 were imported.
- Salmonella was found in 12 skin samples of U.S.-grown avocados, triggering recalls and follow-up testing; no imported samples tested positive for salmonella.
According to the report, the FDA will “work with industry and other food safety experts on best practices that may be used to reduce contamination of avocado skin with Listeria monocytogenes.”