Mexican Cilantro Contamination Spurs Partial U.S. Import Ban

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Some Mexican cilantro is being banned in the U.S. after health officials found human feces and toilet paper in growing fields from which herbs have been linked to hundreds of intestinal illnesses among Americans dating back to 2012.

The Food and Drug Administration will detain Mexican cilantro at the border from April to August and won’t allow products from the state of Puebla, Mexico, into the U.S. without inspections and certification, according to an import ban dated Monday by the agency. Cilantro from other parts of Mexico will need documentation to prove the product isn’t from Puebla, about a two-hour drive southeast of Mexico City.

The cilantro is linked to outbreaks of cyclosporiasis, according to the alert. Last year, at least 304 people in the U.S. came down with the parasitic illness, which can cause diarrhea and explosive bowel movements, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

U.S. restaurant companies that use cilantro said they don’t expect to be affected by the partial ban. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., the fast-casual burrito chain that uses the herb in its guacamole, rice and corn salsa, said all of its cilantro currently comes from California.

“We’re not getting any cilantro from Puebla (or anywhere else in Mexico) right now, so there is no impact on us,” Chris Arnold, a Chipotle spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Taco Bell, owned by Yum! Brands Inc., also gets its cilantro from California, spokeswoman Virginia Ferguson said in an e-mail. Taco Bell uses cilantro in its pico de gallo, guacamole, salsa and Latin rice, according to its website.

No Soap

Since 2013, the FDA and Mexican authorities have inspected 11 farms and packing houses that produce cilantro from Puebla. At eight, health officials found bathrooms without soap, toilet paper or running water, in addition to the human feces and toilet paper in growing fields. Some had a complete lack of toilet facilities.

“Based on those joint investigations, FDA considers that the most likely routes of contamination of fresh cilantro are contact with the parasite shed from the intestinal tract of humans affecting the growing fields, harvesting, processing or packing activities or contamination with the parasite through contaminated irrigation water, contaminated crop protectant sprays, or contaminated wash waters,” the alert said.

Texas Outbreaks

To be allowed to resume imports in to the U.S., Puebla cilantro suppliers will have to show health officials that they’ve put practices in place to overcome unsanitary conditions, the alert said.

The cyclosporiasis outbreak last year affected 19 states, though 64 percent were reported from Texas, where 57 percent of people who got sick said they ate fresh cilantro before becoming ill. Most of the illnesses occurred in June and July. No deaths were reported, though seven people were hospitalized, according to the CDC.

Last year, the FDA increased sampling on cilantro from Puebla farms. Texas health officials are investigating a cyclosporiasis outbreak this year that may be linked to cilantro from Puebla as well. The Texas Department of State Health Services has received reports of 205 cyclosporiasis cases this year.

A 2013 cyclosporiasis outbreak in 25 states was linked to Puebla cilantro as well as salad mix from Taylor Farms de Mexico that was sold to Olive Garden and Red Lobster, both then owned by Darden Restaurants Inc. The FDA and Mexican officials found conditions at Taylor Farms de Mexico in Guanajuato met food safety protocols, the FDA said.

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