Guac lovers everywhere were struck with grievous news a few weeks ago: The FDA has banned imports of cilantro from Puebla, Mexico, after learning that the crop could be contaminated with human feces. Or, as many news sites so elegantly put it, there's probably poop on your produce.
Investigators found feces and toilet paper in cilantro fields, and noted that some farms lacked toilets for their workers. And this isn't just a gross-out, oversell headline, either: Eating produce with feces on it could make you really sick. The FDA suspects (but hasn't confirmed) that this cilantro is the cause of an outbreak of a parasitic infection called cyclosporiasis, which causes a suite of symptoms that include vomiting, bloating, and (gag) "watery diarrhea." So far, 384 people from 26 states have become ill, and a formal investigation is underway.
So, as we cast our cilantro far, far away, we wondered: Could we take extra steps to avoid poop-covered produce before an outbreak occurs? Are there any kinds of produce that are extra susceptible? Or is it really just a 100 percent-pun-intended crapshoot? We spoke with Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, to find out.
The scary truth: Many farm workers simply don't have ready access to restrooms, and the issue isn't contained to specific crops or certain parts of the world.
"One of the problems is that the we have these trade agreements with all kinds of countries saying we recognize their food safety systems as equivalent to ours, and they're not," Hanson said. He notes that India, China, and Mexico have been some of the worst offenders, historically speaking, though the FDA has agents on the ground in these countries actively working to improve conditions. What's more, the U.S. only tests for pathogens in about 2 percent of the food that crosses its borders, Hanson says. This means it's all too easy for a tainted bunch of cilantro to end up in your crisper drawer.
But don't get too comfortable with your domestic produce: This type of contamination happens at home, too. "Even the U.S., which now has laws in place, has not perfected field sanitation," Hanson added.
So, what can you do to minimize risk? Hanson suggests buying as much produce as possible from local farmers who you know and trust to keep their fields sanitary. (Buying American produce over imported is a good second choice, but it still can't guarantee waste-free food.)
Then, most importantly: Wash. Your. Produce. Hanson washes all of his produce three times with water before eating it—yes, even those bagged salads that say "pre-washed" on the label. "That'll get off most of your everyday pathogens," he said. "But if someone in your household has any likelihood of an impaired immune system—kids, anybody with cancer or other conditions that impair immunity, and anyone who's elderly—you should also use some mild soap on the first wash to make sure you loosen everything."
And for now, stay tuned for FDA updates on the cilantro situation. Unless, of course, you're one of the unfortunate souls genetically predisposed to think it tastes like soap. In that case, enjoy your lifetime of bland but decidedly poop-free guacamole.