Import Alert for Mexican papayas over widespread Salmonella contamination

By Dan Flynn on March 28, 2019

The conditions that two years ago led to a deadly multistate salmonella outbreak due to  Maradoly papayas imported from Mexico remain largely unchanged.

imported papayas from Mexico remain under an import alert issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that permits U.S. ports of entry to detain the Mexican produce without physical examination.  FDA’s concern once again is the potential for widespread Salmonella contamination Mexican grown papayas for the American market.

Demand in the U.S. for Mexican-grown papaya usually picks up in the spring. Papayas were not on many menus during the just-ended winter because the cold weather and snow reduced sales.  And supplies were short because of rains in Mexico’s growing regions.

In 2017, Maradol Papayas were associated with four outbreaks involving eight strains of Salmonella. These included Salmonella Urbana, Salmonella Newport, Salmonella Infantis, Salmonella Anatum, Salmonella Thompson, Salmonella Kiambu, Salmonella Agona and Salmonella Gaminara.

More than 250 people were sickened in those outbreaks involving about one-half of U.S. states due to Mexican-grown papayas. Two deaths were also blamed on the imported fruit.  The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta in 2017 went so far as to recommend that “consumers not eat, restaurants not serve and retailers not sell Maradol papayas..”

The latest Import Alert is an update of one that provides for Detention Without Physical Examination of a whole, fresh papaya. Private laboratories may be used for sampling, method, and testing.

Mexico produces 11 percent of the world’s papaya crop, and 65 percent of the all papaya imported into the US. are grown in Mexico. This makes Mexico the largest exporter of fresh papayas into the U.S.

Four Mexican states are the primary papaya growing areas. They are Jalisco, Colima, Chiapas, and Veracruz),

“Evidence shows there is widespread contamination of Mexican papaya with Salmonella, a human pathogen,” the FDA import alert says. “Based on this evidence, FDA has determined that papaya imported from Mexico appears to be adulterated within the meaning of section 402(a)(1) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act because the papayas appear to contain Salmonella, an added poisonous or deleterious substance that may render food injurious to health.”

FDA has been collecting and analyzing samples of raw, fresh whole papaya imported from Mexico since 2011 when it found Salmonella in 33 samples out of a total of 211, or a 15.6 percent positive rate.

The positive samples were from 28 different firms and include nearly all the major papaya producing regions in Mexico.

In addition, a multi-state outbreak of human infections of salmonellosis also occurred in 2011. More than 100 people were infected with the outbreak organism in multiple states.

The pathogen, identified as Salmonella Agona, is attributable to a specific, uncommon serotype of Salmonella with indistinguishable pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) pattern by two enzymes.

In the course of the investigation of this outbreak, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta identified papaya as a likely vehicle. At the same time, State public health agencies conducted interviews of cases to identify the sources of papaya purchased by cases. Using the information provided by the cases, tracebacks were conducted in multiple states. FDA also collected samples of papaya to test for the outbreak strain. Based on information from the outbreak investigation, the outbreak has been associated with papaya from at least one grower and its shipper in Mexico.

Salmonella lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals. The organism may be transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with Salmonella from sources of microbial exposure from animals such as birds, mammals, and reptiles, or humans. Based on the evidence described above, FDA believes that it is extremely unlikely that the Salmonella Agona outbreak, or the elevated rate of positive samples from FDA’s recent testing of papayas from Mexico, is due to random contamination events in nature.

Districts may detain, without physical examination, all raw, fresh and raw, fresh-refrigerated papaya offered for entry from the country of Mexico, unless exempted (on the Green List).

Detention without physical examination is indicated for whole fresh papaya only. Processed papaya (cut or sliced and packaged, or canned or jarred) is not subject to DWPE.

In order to secure the release of an individual shipment detained pursuant to this Import Alert, the importer should provide results of a third-party laboratory analysis, which verifies the product does not contain Salmonella.

FDA has prepared two documents providing options for the testing of papayas associated with the countrywide import alert.

It says if a firm wishes to request removal from detention without physical examination (DWPE), the firm should provide documentation with sufficient evidence that future shipments of their papaya will not be adulterated. FDA may consider five consecutive commercial shipments over a period of time, analyzed as described in the preceding paragraph, as being adequate for removal from DWPE.

A firm that packs repacks, or repackages papayas (often referred to as a packinghouse or packer) from more than one farm may also request removal from DWPE. Requests from these firms should also include information demonstrating that pathogens, such as Salmonella, are adequately controlled during the packing operation.

If removal from DWPE is determined appropriate for the packer, a notation will be made under the packer’s listing on the Green List of this Import Alert noting the firm’s status as a packing facility. Papayas from packers on the Green List will be excluded from detention without physical examination if the papaya originates from growers also currently on the Green List.

Firms, products and/or countries that have met criteria for exemption from Detention without Physical Examination (DWPE) under the Import Alert are said to be on the “green list.”