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FDA bans some Mexican cilantro after feces found in fields

A file photo from May 9, 2003 shows

A file photo from May 9, 2003 shows a farmer harvesting fresh cilantro. Photo Credit: AP / KENT GILBERT

A partial ban has been imposed on cilantro grown in Mexico after U.S. federal investigators found used toilet tissue and human feces in fields where the salad green is grown.

Cilantro, also known as coriander and Chinese parsley, is widely used as a spice and garnish and frequently found in prepared bags of mixed salad greens. The contaminated produce was grown in the state of Puebla, where appalling farming conditions were discovered by U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors. The ban involves any cilantro grown there from April through August.

Contaminated cilantro lies at the core of outbreaks of cyclosporiasis -- a diarrheal disease -- caused by the human-specific intestinal parasite, Cyclospora cayetanensis. Outbreaks have been identified so far this year in Texas and Wisconsin. But these illnesses aren't the first linked to Puebla.

Cilantro-related outbreaks have occurred every summer for the past several years, the FDA said in a statement Tuesday. Illnesses were documented in 2012, 2013 and 2014. In 2013 more than 630 people nationwide were sickened, including people in New York and the greater metropolitan region.

When asked Tuesday why it has taken so long to ban the fecal-tainted salad green, an agency spokeswoman emailed a list of previous public advisories, none of which rose to the level of a ban.

"This is a reason to buy locally grown produce," said Nancy Copperman, director of public health initiatives at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Great Neck.

"When you buy locally grown produce it's usually picked that morning," said Copperman, a nutritionist. Even so-called organically grown produce that is propagated abroad doesn't always meet U.S. sanitation standards, she said.

Food safety lawyer David Plunkett, with the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., said in a statement Tuesday that "the discovery of used toilet paper and human feces in fields of cilantro . . . is plainly unacceptable."

Plunkett noted that new produce safety standards requiring foreign farms to meet U.S. safety standards are expected to be finalized this fall.

"That will help, but Congress also must give FDA the resources it needs to do the inspections that are necessary to stop allowing food grown in disgusting conditions like those found in Mexico from making its way onto American dinner plates," Plunkett said.

Biologically, cyclospora is a protozoan that causes seasonal infections. It is native to tropical and subtropical regions of the world and not naturally found in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is transmitted by direct contact with human feces or through contaminated produce or drinking water.

On Long Island, meanwhile, North Shore-LIJ supports a farmers market in the Spinney Hill section of Great Neck every Sunday throughout the summer through October, promoting the importance of consuming fresh locally grown produce, Copperman said.

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