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WASHINGTON -- Companies that handle fresh cilantro received an unwelcome warning March 31 when the Food & Drug Administration wrote the industry about an increase in Salmonella-positive samples.

Since 2004, the FDA has confirmed Salmonella in 28 samples of fresh cilantro from U.S. and foreign sources, Michael Landa, acting director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, wrote in a March 31 letter to companies that handle cilantro.

In the past, the FDA has sent similar letters to other sectors of the produce industry about commodities such as tomatoes, sprouts and leafy greens that have been linked to repeated outbreaks. As a response, the FDA has issued commodity-specific guidelines for melons, leafy greens and tomatoes instructing the industry on ways to minimize microbial contamination.

Now the FDA is recommending the fresh cilantro industry “review their current operations in the context of the [Good Agricultural Practices] Guide, as well as other available information regarding adequately reducing pathogens in or on fresh produce.”

 

“We further encourage these firms to assess hazards unique to the production of cilantro and to develop commodity-specific preventive control strategies that would identify potential hazards that may be specific to fresh cilantro,” Mr. Landa wrote.

The industry should extend its best practices throughout the supply chain, he said. “Since the available information concerning some of the recent positive findings for Salmonella does not definitively identify the point of origin of the contamination, we recommend that firms take these steps for all points from the farm through distribution.”

The produce industry plans to answer the call, although it is unclear where and when the contamination is occurring as the FDA relies on findings from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Microbiological Data Program and its “uncontrolled” samples of produce at distribution centers, explained David Gombas, vice president of scientific and technical affairs at United Fresh Produce Association.

The sampling program has resulted in several recalls of cilantro.

Most of the companies that grow cilantro also grow leafy greens and already follow good food-safety practices, he said.

“We are going to develop commodity-specific guidelines for cilantro,” along with the Produce Marketing Association, Western Growers Association and leaders in the cilantro industry, Dr. Gombas said. These guidelines could end up helpful for companies developing food-safety plans and meeting audits.