If you were thinking of doing the healthy thing and ordering nopales tacos, you might want to just go ahead and get the carnitas. The California Department of Public Health is warning people not to eat cactus imported from Mexico because it is laden with unapproved pesticides, according to Food Safety News.
Recent routine testing by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation isolated as much as 5.8 parts per million of Monocrotophos, an organophosphate-based pesticide that has been barred from use in the United States since 1989. According to Cornell University, "It is extremely toxic to birds and is used as a bird poison. It is also very poisonous to mammals. It is used to control a variety of sucking, chewing and boring insects and spider mites on cotton, sugarcane, peanuts, ornamentals and tobacco. It is also highly toxic to bees."
The agency immediately pulled all of the cactus it could locate from store shelves and distribution centers. The affected cactus has been quarantined and/or destroyed.
Specifically, the contaminated cactus was sold at:
- La Superior Super Mercados in Sacramento, Stockton, Woodland and Pittsburg from Feb. 6-12, 2014
- Mercado del Valle in Concord from Feb. 6-12, 2014
- La Sucursal Produce on Central Avenue in Los Angeles on Feb. 6, 2014
- Fresh American Produce on Mission Road in Los Angeles on Feb. 7, 2014
- J&L Produce on Central Avenue in Los Angeles on Feb. 6, 2014
Which means that, in all likelihood, the cactus has already been eaten by the people who bought it.
Whole cases of the cactus purchased from the wholesale produce companies likely were labeled with a supplier sticker that stated, "Comercializadora de Chiles, Selectos Nieto S. De R.L. De C.V." Product sold in the retail stores was sold in bulk bins without any specific branding or labeling.
If consumers have any of this product remaining in their possession, they should return it to the place of purchase or throw it in the garbage.
Consumption of Monocrotophos can lead to neurotoxicity and permanent nerve damage. Symptoms of acute poisoning may include sweating, headache, weakness, nausea, vomiting, hypersalivation, abdominal cramps and diarrhea.
(It is believed to be the contaminant responsible for the deaths of 23 schoolchildren in a Bihar, India, school in July 2013 from tainted school lunches.)
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No illnesses have been reported from the cactus. However, it is impossible to say whether any illnesses have occurred, because people may not have made the connection between their symptoms and their nopales salad.
State health officials are working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to identify the growers and importers responsible for bringing the poisoned cactus into the United States so that "future shipments can be examined and verified they are in compliance before making their way into the marketplace." Great idea, guys! And if you could do that before we eat it, bonus!