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.
Confidence in the tomato theory began to falter about two weeks ago. People continued to get sick well after the FDA's June 7 warning on tomatoes. Reviews of orders and shipping records didn't lead to a single farm or supplier, as they did in the 2006 E. coli outbreak in bagged spinach. Teams of investigators collected more than 1,700 samples along the tomato distribution chain and none turned up a trace of the outbreak strain, a rare form known as Salmonella saintpaul.
"My concern would have decreased had we clearly found other evidence for tomatoes by this point," Patricia Griffin, chief of the food-borne disease branch of the CDC, told reporters on a June 27 conference call.
FDA and CDC officials then expanded the probe to include other salsa ingredients based on a new round of interviews with people who fell ill after June 1, said CDC spokesman Glen Nowak. Individuals' recollections of what they ate were more likely to be fresher than those who got sick earlier in the outbreak, epidemiological experts said.
Experts in food-borne illness said that of the shortlist of suspects, jalapeños would best fit the timing, duration and distribution of the outbreak.
The strongest indication that raw jalapeños may be the cause has come from a cluster of 29 cases, said people close to the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter. Most of the clusters -- defined as a least two people getting sick after eating in the same location over a short period -- involve Mexican restaurants. Fresh jalapeños were common to many of the clusters, though not all, the sources said.
The way tomatoes are cultivated has further reduced their likelihood as the outbreak source, produce experts said. Depending on the time of year, tomatoes are grown and picked in parts of the United States and Mexico. Since the outbreak began in April, tomato production has shifted to other areas, and it is unlikely that the same rare strain of salmonella could contaminate tomatoes in different places.
By contrast, a jalapeño plant can be picked multiple times over several weeks, and even months, said Jerry Parsons, a horticulture expert with the Texas Cooperative Extension. The United States gets the vast majority of its fresh jalapeños from Mexico, where they are grown year-round and picked by hand. Once harvested, the peppers can last two to three weeks unrefrigerated and several months if refrigerated, Parsons said.
Produce industry insiders, however, doubt that fresh produce is to blame. If a jalapeño field was contaminated, they said, the plants on that field would have stopped producing fruit well before the latest illnesses began. They are angry at what they see as FDA's poor handling of the investigation.
"We all put public health first, but you don't casually crush an industry, deprive poor migrant workers of their pay, bankrupt farmers, have consumers throw out food -- without triple-checking all these things," said Jim Prevor, author of the industry blog the Perishable Pundit.
Chile pepper importers said they are already feeling the effects of the FDA's scrutiny of jalapeños. "I have two full truckloads of jalapeños in my building quarantined because FDA is holding it awaiting analysis," said Will Steele, president and chief executive of Frontera Produce in Edinburg, Tex. "That was as of last Monday, and there are still no results. The salability of that produce in two to three days is gone."
Although many local restaurant owners said the economic impact of the tomato warning has been limited, some owners of Mexican eateries said they have noticed customers staying away.
Jorge Varges, who owns La Hacienda in Springfield, said he initially lost 10 percent of his customers since the tomato warning. Since the probe widened to include jalapeños and cilantro, he said a quarter of his customers have disappeared.
He has begun washing tomatoes, jalapeños, cilantro and spring onions in diluted bleach and twice more in water.
"Our other choice is to switch to canned stuff," he said, "but we like the fresh tomatoes and fresh cilantro."