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The U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s new countrywide import alert for Mexican papayas is likely to send retailers scrambling for product, devastate Mexican producers and raise troubling questions about FDA tests that found Salmonella on papayas from different regions of the country.

An outbreak that has caused at least 100 people across 23 states to become ill with Salmonella Agona started the series of events that led to a July 23 recall by McAllen, TX-based Agromod Produce Inc. of its papayas distributed nationwide and Canada.

“Based on information from the outbreak investigation, the outbreak has been associated with papaya from at least one grower and its shipper in Mexico,” said the FDA’s Aug. 25 import alert.

Soon after papayas were traced back to Mexico, the FDA said it began testing Mexican papaya shipments at the border from May 12 until Aug. 18 and the tests showed a 15.6 percent detection rate (33 samples out of 211) for Salmonella. The positive samples came from 28 different firms and nearly all the major papaya-producing regions in Mexico, the FDA announced.

Starting Aug. 25, all Mexican papayas are subject to FDA’s new import alert that requires importers to show third-party laboratory analysis that demonstrates the shipment does not contain Salmonella. For a company to be removed from the import alert, it must show that five consecutive commercial shipments are pathogen-free.

With Mexico supplying at least 65 percent of all papayas to the United States, the import alert is likely to be a tragedy to Mexican growers and cause hardship for suppliers, said Homero Levy de Barros, president and chief executive officer of HLB Specialties, a large supplier of mainly Brazilian papayas to major U.S. retail chains.

He predicted that retailers would have a hard time matching the estimated 8,000 truckloads a year of Mexican papayas now affected by the import alert.

“We’ve been dealing with papayas for 20 years and we sell to 15 countries,” said Mr. Levy de Barros, adding that he’s surprised by the latest findings of a contamination problem with papayas and even questioned whether the FDA changed its testing protocol. HLB also imports papayas from Ecuador, Belize and Mexico.

The countrywide import alert is going to cause problems for shippers at the border because there is not enough cold-storage capacity for shippers to store the huge number of papaya shipments for the two weeks it takes for the FDA to clear pathogen tests, he said.

The Produce Marketing Association has alerted its members to the new protocol for releasing shipments, said the association’s Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs.

Ms. Means noted that the FDA did not warn consumers against eating papayas, and that the industry will need to take a close look at the FDA’s surveillance data and see the steps the industry needs to follow to enhance food safety.

“It raises more questions than answers,” she acknowledged, referring to the latest FDA findings.

“I never feel comfortable with closing a whole geographical region,” said David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology at the United Fresh Produce Association. Until the FDA gets a handle on the issue, it’s a test-and-hold protocol that will have an impact on Mexico shipments.

The FDA said that the two trading partners are working together to trace recent contamination incidents back to their source and are collaborating on laboratory methodologies used in Mexico for testing fresh papayas for Salmonella.

"Collaboration between the FDA and the Mexican government in the management of food-safety problems is essential to fulfilling our responsibility to consumers in our respective countries," Mike Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, said in an Aug. 25 press statement. "It is equally important that we work together to prevent problems in the first place by implementing sound measures to prevent contamination throughout the chain of production, processing, distribution and sale. FDA is committed to a strong food safety partnership with Mexico."

The Mexican government and the papaya industry have agreed to a long-range action plan to improve food safety throughout the production and distribution chain in Mexico. Inspectors will verify these procedures are being followed through product testing and government oversight, FDA said.

"I am confident that this joint effort will reduce the risk of contamination of produce moving across our common border," said Enrique Sanchez Cruz, director in chief of SENASICA. "The strategy we have adopted in this case is aligned very well with the strategy undertaken by the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food [SAGARPA] for papayas."