Mexican papaya industry – a model for sector-wide food safety evolution

A beacon of good practice, the Mexican papaya industry took criticism on the chin and faced its shortcomings with honesty and transparency. The result is a robust well-informed system that aims to provide safe fruits to millions of consumers. Emily Griep advises fellow industry sectors to take note.

In the wake of recent notable food safety incidents within the US, compounded by reports detailing chronic inefficiency issues within the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it can be easy for consumers and food safety professionals to become frustrated, lose confidence in the system and assume that meaningful changes are too distant a prospect.

At such times, it is important to promote stories of success – those where industry members set aside notions of competition, acknowledge a problem and work collaboratively to raise the collective food safety bar for an entire industry.

Identifying the problem

Such is the case for growers of papaya in Mexico, an industry that supplies upwards of 80 percent of the US papaya market. In 2019, it was also an industry that had been linked to eight multi-state outbreaks of Salmonella over the course of eight years. The FDA took notice, and on 26 August 2019, issued a formal letter1 addressing the Mexican papaya industry and demanding action, noting that “recurring outbreaks taking place with any commodity are unacceptable from a public health perspective”.

In rapid response, a collaboration of industry members and associations, including the Texas International Produce Association (TIPA) and the former United Fresh Produce Association (now International Fresh Produce Association, IFPA) set out an ambitious, multi-year plan to develop best practices, train the industry on them, and verify their implementation. This plan was presented to the FDA and in November 2019 a broad stakeholder group consisting of papaya growers, packers, exporters, distributors, retailers, service providers, regulators, other government officials, and US and Mexican researchers set to work.

The result was a years-long sustained effort to identify food safety preventative best practices specific to papaya production, develop educational resources, and train an entire workforce to prevent the recurrence of outbreaks. These efforts continue today, driven by Héctor del Razo Vargas of ProExport Papaya, a group formally established in 2020 that represents 90 percent of papaya exporters in Mexico, in conjunction with training development and delivery support and verification audits led by Sergio Nieto-Montenegro and his team at Food Safety Consulting and Training Solutions (Food Safety CTS).

Collaboration is critical: 2022 must be the year to prioritise partnerships

Following the November meeting, a similarly broad stakeholder working group was developed. It took numerous calls with industry members, representatives from FDA and SENASICA (Mexico’s public health agency in charge of food and agriculture safety), and researchers to assess potential hazards in the papaya production and packing process. We were not shy about the questions asked of the papaya producers and the industry was likewise not shy in sharing their practices – all in the spirit of collective improvement. One hurdle met during the process was the discovery that food safety research in the areas of papaya production and packing was severely limited. In an effort that further highlights the significant benefits of industry-academic cooperation, researchers at the US Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service were able to utilise available funding and rapidly turnaround key research that informed the guide. Continued research to fill additional gaps is ongoing with collaborators at the University of Guadalajara.