The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is increasing its microbiological testing of cucumbers and hot peppers, two vegetables that have been linked with several foodborne outbreaks.
The agency has a more robust surveillance sampling approach under development, and one piece of it is the new microbiological surveillance sampling model designed to identify patterns that could help predict and prevent future contamination by pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli.
During the first year of the program, FDA focused on sprouts, whole fresh avocados, and raw milk cheese. The agency collected more than 800 samples in total and tested them for Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and E. coli O157:H7. Data from these sampling assignments are expected to be released soon.
FDA is interested in testing cucumbers because of five reports of foodborne illness outbreaks associated with the consumption of raw cucumbers from 1996 to 2014. Four of the outbreaks were attributed to Salmonella spp. and one to E. coli, resulting in 296 illnesses and 40 hospitalizations in all. A currently ongoing multi-state outbreak of Salmonella Poona linked to cucumbers imported from Mexico has sickened 838 people and caused four deaths.
The agency is interested in fresh hot peppers because Salmonella has been responsible for eight product recalls involving the vegetable since 2010. In 2008, hot peppers were also associated with an outbreak that caused 1,500 illnesses, 308 hospitalizations and two deaths.
For both cucumbers and hot peppers, FDA wants more information on the prevalence of Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 contamination. The agency also plans to test the hot peppers for Shiga toxin-producing E. coli. FDA will conduct whole genomic sequence testing on any samples that test positive.
For fiscal year 2016, FDA plans to collect 1,600 samples of each commodity. Because the sampling is meant to represent what consumers are likely to find in the marketplace, the agency plans to collect approximately 380 domestic cucumber samples and more than 1,200 imported cucumber samples. For hot peppers, the agency plans to collect approximately 320 domestic samples and 1,280 imported samples.
FDA may collect all varieties of whole, fresh, raw cucumbers and all varieties of hot peppers (including Jalapeño/Serrano) whether grown in fields, greenhouses, shadehouses or hothouses. The agency doesn’t plan on collecting frozen, chopped, pureed or pickled cucumbers, or dried, frozen or chopped peppers, or sweet peppers.
FDA plans to publish the test results on a quarterly basis, including the total number of samples tested, collection date, sample type, and pathogen detected for positive samples.
By developing these data sets, FDA seeks to identify potential vulnerabilities and ways to enhance the food safety system.
Depending on the results, the agency may react by implementing more targeted sampling if trends are identified, conducting follow-up inspections, or developing new or enhanced industry guidance.