By: Stephen M. Ostroff, M.D.
The United States and Mexico are major trading partners in fresh produce. Each year, billions of dollars of fruits and vegetables move across the border. These include Mexican tomatoes, avocados, chilies, berries, cucumbers, lemons, and limes that reach U.S. consumers, as well as American apples, pears, grapes, onions, strawberries, potatoes, peaches and other produce that are sent to Mexico.
Both our countries benefit when we can help to ensure that these valuable commodities are safe for consumers on both sides of our borders. For that reason, the FDA-Mexico Produce Safety Partnership (PSP) was formed in July 2014, forging a stronger relationship between the FDA and Mexico’s National Agro-Alimentary Health, Safety, and Quality Service (SENASICA) and its Federal Commission for the Protection from Sanitary Risk (COFEPRIS).
We are pleased to share that our partnership is making real progress toward our goal of reducing the risk of foodborne illness associated with our produce trade. A new report, titled U.S. FDA-Mexico Produce Safety Partnership: A Dynamic Partnership in Action, provides some specific examples of this progress.
For example, the partnership recently worked to address the contamination of papayas grown in Mexico. In the fall of 2017, the FDA, SENASICA and COFEPRIS worked together to respond to four outbreaks of salmonellosis tied to Mexican-grown papayas. The Mexican agencies conducted inspections and sampled various farms and packing houses in several Mexican states, and shared their findings with the FDA. We were able to leverage their work and resources, along with the findings of our own outbreak investigation, to place four farms on import alert, thus providing information to the FDA inspectors who detained those products without having to physically examine them. SENASICA likewise implemented a regulatory response. In October 2017, Mexico strengthened its food safety oversight of papayas, which are subject to the Produce Safety Rule under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act if they will be imported or offered for import in the U.S.
In another example, in 2015, Listeria monocytogenes was detected in kiwi and apples grown in the U.S. and exported to Mexico. The exchange of information under the PSP, including the sharing of bacterial isolates and testing by both FDA and SENASICA laboratories, helped prevent more contaminated produce from entering Mexico. It also established a protocol for the future exchange of bacterial strains to improve detection and understanding of contamination.
These are just two of several instances in which the partnership has led to coordinated preventive activities in addition to enforcement activities that help to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses and enable both countries to respond more rapidly to a potential or actual outbreak, better protecting both American and Mexican consumers.
But the partnership has also provided benefits beyond individual outbreaks. Both countries have also been working collaboratively through working groups on institutionalizing approaches that reinforce preventive practices and rapid response to outbreaks. The groups have focused on information sharing, education and outreach, training, laboratory methods and processes, and how to respond effectively to outbreaks.
Looking to the future, the report outlines our five-year plan to increase engagement and the exchange of knowledge with key public and private partners. Through the partnership, we plan to also work on identifying common approaches for auditors and inspectors to better execute compliance and enforcement activities, and will create a strategy to conduct joint inspections and sampling. This will help both countries maximize their resources for the benefit of consumers on both sides of the border.
This is a long-term partnership. While there are differences in our systems, technologies, and environments, the U.S. and Mexico both want consumers to be confident in the safety of their food. By working together, we can achieve that goal.
Stephen M. Ostroff, M.D., is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine.