Cilantro, Cyclospora, and Food Safety Funding

For the fourth summer in a row, concerns about the safety of imported cilantro are underscoring the importance of robust funding for U.S. food safety. Hundreds of people in the United States have been infected with Cyclospora, a foodborne parasite, and outbreaks have been linked, at least tentatively, to Mexican cilantro. U.S. authorities are investigating an ongoing Cyclospora outbreak in which more than 450 illnesses have been reported across 29 states. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued an alert restricting imports of cilantro from Puebla, Mexico, because of unsanitary hygiene practices in the fields where the herb is grown.

Cyclospora is not found naturally in the United States. Domestic illnesses are linked to international travel or consumption of imported fruits and vegetables. The first described Cyclospora infection dates back to 1979, but the pathogen only emerged as a real foodborne threat in the U.S. during the 1990s, primarily because of two large, multistate outbreaks in 1996 and 1997, both associated with more than 1,000 cases. The list of imported products implicated in Cyclospora outbreaks since then goes far beyond cilantro and includes basil from Peru, snow peas and raspberries from Guatemala, and bagged salads from Mexico.  

These outbreaks are particularly troubling because Cyclospora is significantly different from other foodborne pathogens. The only known transmission route is food or water contaminated with human waste. The parasite cannot be transmitted directly from person to person; it only becomes infectious after human fecal matter remains on the ground for several days.

As clearly demonstrated in this case, more must be done to improve the safety of imported produce, and FDA is taking steps to do just that. Implementation over the next few years of final Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules governing produce and food import safety means that growers in the U.S. and around the world will be required to reduce potential contamination in fresh fruits and vegetables. Beyond the regulations, FDA also began a partnership in 2014 with sister agencies in Mexico to improve produce safety.

Nevertheless, implementation of the FSMA rules and agreements like the one between the U.S. and Mexico will not be successful unless FDA is provided with adequate funding for technical assistance to growers, robust oversight of importers, increased staffing and training, and other components of the new import oversight system envisioned by FSMA.

This fall, Congress and the administration will decide how much funding FDA will receive for FSMA implementation in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. The administration has requested an additional $109.5 million, funding that would enable FDA to prevent concerns such as the outbreak associated with cilantro. Yet bills approved earlier this year by the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate appropriations committees included only $41.5 million and $45 million, respectively, for implementation of the food safety law. If Congress does not increase funding for FSMA at this critical juncture in the agency’s implementation work, we will likely see more outbreaks in the coming years linked to imported produce.  

Sandra Eskin directs the safe food project for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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