FDA bars all Mexican cantaloupe over risk of Salmonella contamination

Oct 30, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has halted the importation of Mexican cantaloupes because of evidence that unsanitary conditions in melon fields and processing facilities have caused four salmonellosis outbreaks in the past 3 years.

Outbreaks linked with Mexican cantaloupes in 2000, 2001, and 2002 caused two deaths and 18 hospitalizations, the agency said in its Oct 28 announcement. Each outbreak involved 35 to 50 illness cases. Three outbreaks featured Salmonella enterica serotype Poona, and the other involved S Anatum, the agency said.

This week's action extends previous FDA import bans aimed at specific shippers and growers whose melons were linked to outbreaks or were contaminated, the FDA said. The ban shouldn't affect consumers because it is very unlikely that there are any Mexican cantaloupes in US stores now, FDA spokesman Sebastian Cianci told CIDRAP News. The growing season is November to June, so "this is prior to when we believe we'd be getting shipments from Mexico," he said.

In a news release, the FDA said, "Investigations of Salmonella outbreaks between 2000 and 2002 showed insanitary conditions in the growing and packing of cantaloupe in Mexico. In addition, FDA sampling of imported produce found some samples of cantaloupe from most growing regions in Mexico tested positive for Salmonella."

In an "import alert" notice to field personnel, the FDA said sources of Salmonella contamination may include irrigation with sewage-contaminated water, cleaning and cooling with contaminated water, poor hygiene by processing workers, pests in packing facilities, and inadequate cleaning of equipment used in handling the product.

FDA inspections in Mexico revealed "gross insanitary conditions," lack of an overall environmental sanitation program, and an apparent lack of regulatory authority in Mexican law to prevent the unsanitary conditions, the alert notice said. Also, cantaloupes from different growing areas may be mixed, so that any shipment may contain contaminated fruit.

Recent salmonellosis outbreaks linked with cantaloupe triggered speculation that the melons might have been contaminated by iguana lizards in the fields, but the FDA discounted that idea. The agency said random natural events such as the presence of animal waste in fields can lead to contamination and illness. However, it is "extremely unlikely" that contamination due to random natural events would lead to repeated multistate outbreaks involving indistinguishable strains of Salmonella, officials said. They said the recent outbreaks affected wide areas and occurred over 4- to 6-week periods, suggesting that more than one shipment was involved and that random natural events were not to blame.

The FDA alert notice said individual firms may be able to win an exemption from the import ban if they submit information about their sanitation program. The agency may do on-site inspections in some growing areas to verify the information submitted, officials said.

In addition, the FDA said it is working with the Mexican government on a formal certification program for cantaloupe producers that use good agricultural and manufacturing practices.

Meanwhile, the agency said consumers should take precautions with cantaloupe and other produce, including avoiding damaged produce and washing all fresh fruits and vegetables with cool tap water just before eating.

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