Ackee Under Renewed Scrutiny by the US

I was doing research online a few days ago when I saw something that had me almost jump out of my seat: ackee is banned in the US.

How could that be, I wondered. I saw several cans of ackee in the supermarket last weekend.

Ackee, Jamaica’s national fruit, was banned in the US for 27 years until 2000 because of the toxin, Hypoglycin A, which can cause symptoms as mild as vomiting to severe as coma and death.

When the US lifted the ban, only two of the island’s processing plants satisfied the FDA’s food safety requirements and could begin exporting the fruit to the lucrative US market.

Exports to the UK and Canada, estimated then at $10 million annually, were expected to double within two or three years making ackee Jamaica’s largest agricultural export.

According to the FDA’s newly released “guidance,” its district offices may detain, without physical examination, all ackee products offered for import.

Ackee likely came to Jamaica with enslaved people from West Africa. It is here that Captain Bligh (yes, the infamous Bligh of the Bounty) was introduced to the fruit. He took the tree to Kew Gardens in 1793, where it was named Blighia sapida in his honor.

Ackee grows three fruits to a pod. The fruit is yellow (like the color of scrambled eggs), has a hard, glossy black seed and a bright pink membrane. Both the seed and membrane are removed prior to cooking. There are two types of ackee, one that is firm (called cheese) and holds its shape after cooking and another that is softer (called butter) and will break apart if overcooked.

Ackee Under Renewed Scrutiny by the US
Ackee Dip with Fried Plantain from Miss Lily’s Restaurant, NYC

Although ackee is found in other Caribbean islands, it is more popular in Jamaica than anywhere else. Ours is the only country that grows, eats and exports ackee. Usually, it is paired with saltfish, onions, peppers, thyme, and tomatoes but it can also be curried. I’ve even seen a recipe for ackee cheesecake in Rosemary Parkinson’s, Nyam Jamaica.

One local winemaker, who I met a couple years ago, is now producing ackee wine. It wasn’t bad either. And just last night, I had an appetizer of plantain chips and pureed ackee (dip). 

The trunk of the ackee tree is also useful. Hard and immune to termites, it is great for making furniture. The green fruits can produce soap, and the flowers can be used in cosmetics.

According to the FDA, the guidance describes the agency’s current thinking and should be used as recommendation only. But it has created a ‘green list’ of companies that can export fruits to the US.

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8 comments on “Ackee Under Renewed Scrutiny by the US

  1. We’ve had deaths in Jamaica as recently as 2011 but I haven’t heard of any in the US or elsewhere. That could have caused the FDA to take another look.

  2. I really hope the FDA directive really is just a “guidance” and not an outright ban. I love my ackee!

  3. I always learn something new and interesting when I read your blog. I’ve never even heard of ackee. 🙂

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