March 24, 2008

Honduran melons in the headlines

Once again Honduras has hit the international headlines and as usual it's not a good thing. The US Food and Drug Administration has reported that Salmonella outbreaks in 16 states in the U.S. have been linked to Honduran cantaloupes. The Canadian Food Inspection Service has followed suit after nine incidents.

Agriculture is one of Honduras' major industries and a bad reputation could really hurt the country's already depressed economy. President Mel Zelaya has declared the FDA's announcement to be unfair, extreme, and imprudent, saying that the contamination could have occurred by mishandling in the U.S. grocery stores. While that may be true, it seems unlikely since the canteloupes, packed in boxes, were shipped all over the US and Canada.

I think he would have been better served to declare that a full investigation is being done and that appropriate measures will be taken here in Honduras. I think that a flat denial and pointing fingers just won't fly as well in the U.S. as it does here in Honduras.

As big a deal as this has been in the U.S., it is even bigger here. Today's La Prensa is full of reports from the President, the grower, and the Minister of Industry and Commerce, who has demanded immediate suspension of the embargo and a written apology from the FDA as well as indemnization for the company's losses which are currently estimated to be US $4-8 million. Humpf! That will be a cold day in you-know-where, don't you think?

The general manager of the company in question, Agropecuaria Montelíbano, says that its produce is routinely inspected by both Honduran and US experts as well as by Dole and Chiquita experts who are also customers of the company. Company executives flew to the US yesterday to meet with the FDA officials.

Although one specific grower has been mentioned, when this is all over, the only things that people will remember are "cantaloupes" and "Honduras" so it could have lasting effects on the agricultural export market of Honduras.

I've been doing some research on salmonella. Did you know that one type of Salmonella bacteria causes typhoid fever? Yes, we have typhoid fever in Honduras and a recent newspaper article indicated that it is on the rise. As far as Salmonella outbreaks in Honduras go, it's not the type of thing that most people would or could seek doctor treatment for so it's not likely that there are any reliable statistics. I didn't even go to a doctor when I had it.

The FDA has a good summary about Salmonella:

Salmonella Questions and Answers

All the sources that I read agreed that preventative measures include washing hands with soap and water before doing anything in the kitchen and frequently during food preparation, especially after handling chicken or meat. They also recommended washing food containers, utensils, and work surfaces with hot soapy water to reduce contamination and cross contamination of other foods.

Other tips include keeping hot foods hot, cold foods cold, keeping foods that need refrigeration in the refrigerator, not leaving foods sitting out in the kitchen, etc. − all tips that are general common knowledge in first world countries.
However, all of these tips are usually disregarded in the kitchens that I've been into in Honduras and by the maids who have worked for me. Rubbing a green scrubby pad encased with grease and food particles over a container which held raw chicken or other meat and then using the same scrubby to wash dishes or clean the countertop is just not hygienic! The only tip that seems to be religiously followed is the full cooking (over-cooking) of foods.

One of the most interesting things that I found is that salmonella can cause swelling of joints and joint pain which can last for months or years and can lead to chronic arthritis. Arthritis is a big concern among Honduran women who believe all sorts of old wives tales having to do with getting your hands hot or cold or wet at certain times or in certain order. Sorry I can't be more specific about these theories because these things just don't make any sense to me.

It might be a stretch to say so, but maybe all the worry about arthritis among women here in Honduras could be avoided by doing the very things that old wives tales tell them NOT to do. It's widely believed that using hot water causes arthritis. A lifetime of exposure to all these bacterias in their food, water, and kitchens could be the real cause.

Both Salmonella and E-Coli bacteria live in the intestines and in feces − not a nice thought at all. Meat products are more likely to be the cause of infection but produce can be widely contaminated if exposed to sewage-contaminated water.

If the contaminated Honduran melons are as widespread as reported, it seems likely that it is a result of contaminated irrigation water. That makes me think that all Honduran produce could be a risk since there is so much water pollution here unless some method of sanitizing the produce before shipping is employed. Thinking about it, surely some sort of sanitizing must be routinely performed by exporters or this kind of scare would come up a lot more often.

To reduce the risk of salmonella and E-coli in fruits and vegetables, wash produce in plain water or with water with bleach (1 to 3 teaspoons of chlorine bleach per gallon) followed by a plain-water rinse can reduce the number of pathogens and other microorganisms on produce.

I haven't used bleach in the past but I think I'm going to start. I've always washed produce well under our non-contaminated faucet water and then rinsed with purified water. That is probably not enough.

Currently, they say there are 1,000 containers of fruit waiting on the docks at Puerto Cortés. Unless exoneration comes quickly, I imagine that the remaining contaminated fruit will be dumped on the Honduran public.

Updates: March 29, 2008, FDA Inspectors come to Honduras
April 5, 2008, More melon controversy
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