Deconstructing Salsa In Search of Salmonella

Workers separated tomatoes at a Mexico City market after the salmonella outbreak began. The U.S. gets most of its fresh jalapeños from Mexico.
Workers separated tomatoes at a Mexico City market after the salmonella outbreak began. The U.S. gets most of its fresh jalapeños from Mexico. (By Gregory Bull -- Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Annys Shin and Simone Baribeau
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The hunt for the smoking jalapeño is on.

Investigators who spent nearly a month searching for the cause of a salmonella outbreak in tomatoes are now holding and testing shipments of imported jalapeños at the Mexican border in hopes of finding the outbreak strain.

Officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it is premature to declare jalapeños the lead suspect and still list it with tomatoes, cilantro and serrano peppers as one of the common salsa ingredients under investigation. Officials have also stepped up testing of cilantro and serrano peppers, but "there is no specific 'prime suspect,' " FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek said.

As the number of illnesses tops 900, the stakes are high. If federal officials leading the probe wait too long for proof, there's a risk that more people will get sick. But if they single out the wrong food, a mistake could cost an industry millions of dollars. The tomato industry says it has already lost $100 million.

The FDA continues to warn consumers not to eat Roma, red plum and red round tomatoes not attached to the vine if they were grown outside certain areas. Cherry and grape tomatoes and tomatoes on the vine are considered safe.

FDA officials said yesterday that they may change the warning depending on the outcome of the testing. So far, they have not warned against jalapeños.

This is the latest twist in an outbreak that began in April.

Because it takes two weeks for lab tests to confirm the presence of salmonella, it wasn't until May that the number of cases suggested an outbreak. The outbreak spread to 40 states, making coordination difficult among state health officials and two federal bodies, the FDA and CDC. Much of the evidence comes from patient interviews, and memories may be faulty.

After the FDA issued its tomato warning in early June, some state and local investigators around the country had doubts about whether tomatoes were the culprit.

Chicago health officials said the roughly 50 cases they have seen implicated salsa. "From Day One, we . . . have been somewhat skeptical about fingering tomatoes," said Department of Public Health spokesman Tim Hadac.

Officials in New Mexico, one of the first states to identify the outbreak in May, also saw a strong link to fresh salsa, including salsa prepared in people's homes.

But officials from the CDC and from New Mexico and Texas -- which also had some of the earliest cases -- eventually decided the evidence pointed to tomatoes as the most likely suspect.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company