Farmer’s Friend, a Wilmington, N.C., produce distributor, is suing its Texas-based supplier of cilantro, alleging it sourced produce contaminated with the Cyclospora parasite from a grower with deplorable sanitary conditions in its Puebla, Mexico, farms and packing facilities.
According to court documents, Farmer’s Friend accuses Don Hugo Produce Inc. of misleading it with “fraudulent and deceptive” third-party audits that certified the quality of the cilantro. Farmer’s Friend says the documentation showed the produce to be safe for consumption when Don Hugo knew about the unsanitary conditions in Mexico but concealed them.
As a result, Cyclospora-contaminated cilantro was exported to the United States, where is sickened U.S. consumers for each of the past four seasons. When ingested, the parasite causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, and other symptoms that require hospitalization in some cases.
Investigators with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Mexican health authority inspected the Puebla farm and facilities and reported conditions that “included human feces and toilet paper found in the growing fields and around facilities, inadequately maintained and supplied toilet and hand washing facilities (i.e., no soap, no toilet paper, no running water, no paper towels) or a complete lack of toilet and hand washing facilities; food-contact surfaces (such as plastic crates used to transport cilantro or tables where cilantro was cut and bundled) visibly dirty and not washed; and water used for purposes such as washing cilantro vulnerable to contamination from sewage/septic systems.”
The single-cell Cyclospora parasite has infected at least 495 people in 30 U.S. states since the beginning of May 2015. The outbreak has followed an almost identical pattern to the previous three years when contaminated cilantro from Puebla, Mexico, was shipped into the U.S. and distributed throughout the country.
Farmer’s Friend claims that Don Hugo produced documentation showing that the farms in Zacatecas and Aguascalientes, Mexico, were compliant with standards set by the Global Good Agricultural Practices and Mexico’s Secretariat of Agriculture and Food. It agreed to buy from Don Hugo on that basis, but Farmer’s Friend alleges that the supplier sold them produce from unapproved farms in the State of Puebla, including 26 shipments in June and July.
The outbreak prompted the FDA to issue an import alert on July 28, 2015, that called for the “Detention Without Physical Examination of Fresh Cilantro from the State of Puebla, Mexico.”
Farmer’s Friend filed its lawsuit in a federal court in McAllen, Texas.