Cilantro

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Key Facts

  • Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is an herb and a member of the Apiaceae family. It is commonly used in Latin American and Asian dishes and is sometimes referred to as ‘Mexican parsley’ or ‘Chinese parsley.’
  • Although the entire plant is edible, the leaves and seeds are most frequently used.
  • ‘Cilantro’ typically refers to the leaves of the plant, which are often used fresh or dried. ‘Coriander’ usually refers to the seeds of the plant, which are usually ground and used as a spice. However, these names are often used interchangeably.
  • Some individuals report that cilantro has an unpleasant ‘soapy’ taste.
  • Cilantro and coriander are both utilized in traditional medicine.
  • Because cilantro is often consumed raw and used as a garnish or ingredient in dishes, it can be difficult to definitively identify cilantro as the vehicle for illness during foodborne outbreaks. Cilantro has been implicated in outbreaks of cyclosporiasis (Cyclospora cayetanensis), Salmonella, Shigella, and Shiga-toxin producing Escherichia coli.

Introduction

Cilantro (scientific name Coriandrum sativum) is an annual herb that is part of the Apiaceae family of plants, which also includes carrots, fennel, parsley, celery, anise, and cumin. It is commonly featured in Asian, Latin American, Caribbean, and Mediterranean cuisine, and is sometimes referred to as ‘Mexican’ or ‘Chinese parsley.’ ‘Cilantro’ generally refers to the leaves of the plant, which can be used fresh or dried, while ‘Coriander’ refers to the seeds of the plant, which are usually ground and used as a spice. However, these names are often used interchangeably.

Cilantro has been cultivated and utilized since ancient times, and today is commercially grown in almost every country. The areas that produce the most cilantro include India, China, the former Soviet Union, Mexico, South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. The U.S. does not produce enough cilantro to meet domestic demands, and therefore imports large amounts of this herb.

Foodborne Outbreaks and Recalls

Between 1998 and 2017, at least 20 cilantro-associated outbreaks were reported to CDC’s National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS), causing 659 illnesses, 67 hospitalizations, and no deaths. Implicated pathogens have included Salmonella, Shiga-toxin producing Escherichia coli, Shigella, norovirus, and Cyclospora cayetanensis.

Below are examples of outbreaks and recalls associated with cilantro reflecting the diversity of vehicles, pathogens, and other circumstances:

In 1998, salsa containing cilantro sickened over 300 people with Shigella sonnei in California. Contaminated cilantro, originating from a farm in Mexico, was identified as the vehicle of illness. Parsley from the same farm was also associated with outbreaks of Shigella elsewhere during this time.

In 1999, dishes containing cilantro served at five different Mexican-style restaurants sickened 76 individuals with Salmonella enterica serotype Thompson in California, causing 3 hospitalizations and no deaths. Traceback investigations revealed that 3 restaurants shared common growers that were located in the same region of Mexico, and 2 restaurants shared common distributers. Due to insufficient record keeping, it was impossible to determine if all restaurants had received cilantro from the same growers.

In 2010, J&D Produce Inc. voluntarily recalled its Little Bear brand cilantro after testing yielded Salmonella. There were no reported illnesses.

In 2012, fish tacos containing cilantro served at a Mexican-style restaurant sickened 16 individuals with Cyclospora cayetanensis in Texas. A historical traceback investigation implicated cilantro imported from Puebla, Mexico.

In 2013, dishes containing cilantro served at four different Mexican-style restaurants or purchased from the same grocery store chain sickened 38 individuals with Cyclospora cayetanensis in Texas. Traceback investigations implicated cilantro imported from three suppliers in Puebla, Mexico.

In 2014, dishes containing cilantro consumed at five different Mexican-style restaurants sickened 26 individuals with Cyclospora cayetanensis in Texas. Traceback investigations implicated cilantro imported from multiple firms in Puebla, Mexico.

In 2015, cilantro sickened 90 individuals with Cyclospora cayetanensis in Texas, Wisconsin, and Georgia. Traceback investigations implicated cilantro imported from Mexico.

In 2016, dishes containing cilantro consumed at two locations of a Mexican-style restaurant, Carbon Live Fire Mexican Grill, sickened 65 individuals with Shiga-toxin producing Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Chicago, Illinois, resulting in 20 hospitalizations and no deaths. Investigation by the Chicago Department of Public Health identified contaminated cilantro as the likely cause of the outbreak. The restaurant voluntarily closed both locations during the investigation. The large number of PFGE patterns associated with the outbreak suggest a heavily contaminated ingredient, rather than a contamination from a point source.

In response to the recurring outbreaks of Cyclospora that occurred during 2012 through 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an Import Alert regarding cilantro from the Mexican state of Puebla. Investigations of farms and packing houses by the U.S. FDA and Mexican regulatory authorities revealed unsanitary conditions in growing fields and around facilities, inadequately maintained or supplied toilet and handwashing facilities, unsanitary food contact surfaces, and unsafe water supplies. The U.S. FDA concluded that cilantro produced in the state of Puebla appears adulterated and is therefore subject to refusal. Due to the seasonality of previous Cyclospora outbreaks, cilantro from this region is detained from April 1 through August 30 of every year, unless the cilantro originates from a firm on the Green List for this Alert. Similarly, in response to the Shigella sonnei outbreaks in 1998, the U.S. FDA issued an Import Alert regarding cilantro and parsley grown by Agricola Herendira in Mexico.

Production

Photo by Ynes Ortega
Coriander seeds. Photo by: Ynes Ortega

Cilantro grows best under cool conditions and can withstand temperatures as low as 10°C. Seeds germinate within 1-2 weeks and harvesting takes about 120 days. Flowering usually occurs when the temperatures increase. At warm temperatures, cilantro plants will flower 4-6 weeks after planting. Plants prefer a sunny location and a well-drained soil. In the U.S., cilantro is grown commercially mostly along the southern and central coast of California. The main harvests are between March and mid-November. Winter crops are harvested from November to March.

In 2008, Mexico was the largest worldwide cilantro exporter, with about 42 million Kg of cilantro. In 2004, California was the state with the largest cilantro production (25.5 million Kg) in the U.S. Annual cilantro production averages 8-11 tons per acre. Cilantro is harvested by hand and sold in bunches, or is machine harvested for food service and processing. Cilantro is typically packed in 10-pound boxes with 30 bunches per box. After harvest, cilantro is hydro-cooled or iced in storage facilities. Boxes are held at 33-35°F for shipment and have a shelf life of at least 14 days.

In order to produce safe cilantro, Good Agricultural Practices need to be implemented during pre-harvest application of irrigation water and soil amendments. During harvest and post-harvest, personnel (i.e. field, harvest, and packers) should be healthy and practice good hygiene, including access to and use of sanitary toilet and hand washing facilities.

For more information regarding the movement of cilantro in the U.S., please visit the Produce Point of Origin Database.

Food Safety

Fresh herbs, such as cilantro, can serve as vehicles for pathogens that cause foodborne illness, including Salmonella, Shiga-toxin producing Escherichia coli, Shigella, and Cyclospora cayetanensis. Human infection occurs via the fecal-oral route and there are many points along the farm-to-fork continuum at which cilantro can become contaminated.

Cilantro is typically sold as a raw, processed product. Processing can include cleaning, trimming, cutting, quality sorting, and packing, including ‘bunching.’ Cilantro can be harvested mechanically or by hand, and can be packed in the field, packinghouse, or processing plant. Environmental conditions of growing fields and adjacent lands can also contribute to contamination, particularly through soil or water. Fecal contamination can occur through the presence of domestic animals or wildlife in fields or runoff from nearby animal production or waste treatment facilities. Cross contamination of cilantro via farm equipment can also occur.

Fresh cilantro. Photo by: Ynes Ortega

Fresh cilantro can be classified as a raw agricultural commodity, and therefore not ready-to-eat, or as ready-to-use or ready-to-eat. Food safety programs should focus on preventing microbial contamination of cilantro, rather than reduction, because cilantro is often consumed raw and without a ‘kill step,’ such as cooking. Following the preventative measures included in Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), Good Handling Practices (GHPs), Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs), and the U.S. FDA’s “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards of Fresh-cut Fruits and Vegetables” can help prevent microbial contamination. Due to the extensive handling of cilantro, food safety training for workers and following of proper sanitation and hygiene practices are crucial.

A study to determine the prevalence of Salmonella in fresh produce items, conducted by the USDA Microbiological Data Program, during 2004-2012 found that the Salmonella prevalence ranged from 0 to 0.34% among fresh cilantro samples. In 2000, the U.S. FDA conducted a survey of domestic fresh produce and found the prevalence of Salmonella to be 1.2% among cilantro samples, while surveys of imported fresh produce conducted in 1999 and 2001 found the prevalence to be 9% and 3.3%, respectively, among cilantro samples. Additionally, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs performed a study in 2004 and found the prevalence of Escherichia coli in fresh cilantro samples to be 4.9%. A Belgian study to determine the microbiological quality of pre-packaged cilantro originating from Belgium, Cyprus, and Israel identified Shiga-toxin producing E. coli in 1%, 8%, and 3% of fresh cilantro samples, respectively, and Salmonella in 5% of samples originating from Cyprus. Testing of imported and domestic fresh cilantro, as well as other herbs, by the U.S. FDA is ongoing.

Due to the resilience and environmental resistance of the Cyclospora parasite and its oocysts, Good Agricultural Practices are critical in preventing contamination of cilantro. Of particular importance is not applying human fecal waste to agricultural fields.

For more information on the shelf life of cilantro, please visit the FoodKeeper App.

Consumption

The per capita consumption of cilantro within the U.S. is not known. However, given the fact that the U.S. is one of the top importers of the crop in the world, there is reason to believe that consumption values are significant given the global increases of immigration, tourism, and international trade, which could increase the number and types of ethnic restaurants and ethnic foods in the U.S. Cilantro is commonly used in Mexican inspired foods including, but not limited to salsa, bean dips, guacamole, or crushed and mixed with sour cream, and used as a topping for chili, tacos, and enchiladas. It is also widely used in Asian stir-fried vegetables and in Thai and Vietnamese foods, such as Phò. Coriander is typically toasted and grounded prior to use, and is added as a spice to curry, soups, stews, vegetables, and meat dishes, specifically in Indian, Middle Eastern, and African cuisines. It can also be used in pickling and brining.

Photo by Ynes Ortega
Cilantro in salsa. Photo by: Ynes Ortega

Cilantro’s strong aroma and flavor is enjoyed by many, however distaste of it is not uncommon as many state cilantro tastes and smells like soap or dirt; characteristics attributable to several aldehydes in the item. A genome wide association study consisting of participants of European ancestry found that participants with a specific single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP), OR6A2 were more likely to describe the taste and smell of cilantro as soapy or dirt-like, confirming a genetic component to people’s taste perception.

Allergies and sensitivities to cilantro/coriander are uncommonly heard of, not because they do not occur, but because symptoms of such are similar to those of other foods. Non-allergic reactions include skin rashes, cough due to inhalation, and itching of the mouth. A particular food allergy associated with coriander is oral allergy syndrome (OAS), a reaction in the lips, mouth, and throat.  It occurs as a result of the cross-reaction between plant proteins from pollen and produce, usually when the produce item is eaten raw. The pollen associated with coriander is birch. As eluded to before, OAS can be treated by cooking food items or avoiding them completely. A severe allergic reaction to coriander was documented in 2018 when a 29 year-old Italian woman who was admitted to the emergency department after drinking a craft beer with coriander flavoring. Her symptoms included sneezing, swollen eyelids, troubled breathing, and “intense and diffuse” itching. Although, the patient was treated and recovered quickly, this incident demonstrates the importance of including all ingredients on food/drink items, especially if using potential allergens that are of rising concern.

Photo by Ynes Ortega
Cilantro in Vietnamese Phò. Photo by: Ynes Ortega

Nutrition

According to the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference (2016), cilantro is very low in calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol. It is a source of thiamin and zinc, and a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol), vitamin K, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, pantothenic acid, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium.
Cilantro has been used by people as a natural treatment for a variety of malaises. Coriander seeds have been used in treating indigestion, nausea, and dysentery, and the leaves have been used to stimulate the appetite and help with digestion.

References

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Author

Ynes Ortega

Ynes Ortega

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