A dispute over banned cilantro contaminated with Cyclospora has landed in court. Produce wholesaler Farmers Friend has filed a lawsuit alleging supplier Don Hugo Produce knowingly misrepresented the origin of cilantro to skirt an FDA ban issued after cilantro from the Puebla area of Mexico was linked to a Cyclospora outbreak two years in a row.
Cyclospora is a parasite that lives in subtropical climates. Infections are usually associated with travel to developing countries, but for the last couple of summers it has travelled here on cilantro grown Puebla, Mexico.
The hallmark of cyclosporiasis is profuse, often explosive, diarrhea that can last up to two months. Other cyclosporiasis symptoms, which can also last more than 60 days, include abdominal cramps, bloating, gas, nausea, fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss, vomiting, body aches, low-grade fever, and other flu-like symptoms.
Since May, at least 495 cases have been reported in the U.S. Last summer, cilantro contaminated with Cyclospora sickened 126 people in Texas.
Traceback investigations identified Puebla as the implicated growing area. After finding human waste and toilet paper in the cilantro fields, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) placed an import alert on cilantro from that region. The alert, which covered fresh intact and chopped cilantro, allowed U.S. officials to detain without physical inspection any cilantro shipments from the Puebla region from April 1 through August 31.
Hugo Produce falsely represented to Farmer’s Friend that the cilantro it was selling was not grown in Puebla and submitted food safety audits to Farmers Friend prior to the sale, according to the complaint. “In total disregard of Farmer’s Friend’s prior approval of specific farms/cilantro growers, Defendant obtained and sold to Farmer’s Friend cilantro from a farm or farms located in Puebla, Mexico, that it knew were utilizing unsafe, unsanitary, and unhealthy production processes. As a direct result of Defendant’s sale of adulterated cilantro to Farmer’s Friend, and Farmer’s Friend’s subsequent resale of that cilantro within the United States, many of the ultimate consumers or purchasers (i.e., individual consumers) of the cilantro became ill and made claims against Farmer’s Friend’s customers (wholesalers, distributors, and retailers) for cyclosporiasis resulting in severe cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, and, in the most severe cases, hospitalization,’ the complain alleges.
Fraudulent misrepresentations, negligence and breach of contract are among the 13 counts in the complaint filed September 8 in U.S. Ditsrict Court Southern Distict of Texas McAllen Division.
Meanwhile, an investigation of a Cyclospora outbreak continues for the third straight summer. In addition to the two outbreaks linked to cilantro for Puebla, in 2013, an outbreak that sickened 227 people in Iowa and Nebraska wwas linked to a commercial bagged salad mix produced by Taylor Farms of Mexico and served at Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants. Several lawsuits were filed.
Ryan Osterholm, a noted food safety attorney, represented one of the people sickened in that outbreak, an Iowa woman who contracted a parasitic Cyclospora infection after eating at an Olive Garden. Her illness lasted several weeks and required three trips to the emergency room, according to the complaint.