By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Federal health officials now blame raw jalapeños for some of the illnesses in the three-month-old salmonella outbreak and yesterday advised the elderly, infants and people with compromised immune systems to avoid them.
Investigators still think tomatoes -- the original suspect in the outbreak -- have made people sick and are considering the possibility that the same rare strain of salmonella has contaminated both tomatoes and peppers.
The number of people who have gotten sick has reached 1,017, making it the largest outbreak of food-borne illness in 10 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One death, of a Texas man in his 80s, has been linked to the outbreak. Another Texas man, in his 60s, who died of cancer, was infected with the outbreak strain.
The new warning also applies to raw serrano peppers, which are often confused with jalapeños.
Last week, officials started testing peppers for Salmonella saintpaul, but they did not issue a warning until yesterday. Health officials targeted the jalapeño warning at a smaller segment of the population than the one previously issued for tomatoes because they have not linked specific jalapeño varieties to the outbreak.
"We thought of this as our way of protecting those at greatest risk as more information develops about jalapeños," said Robert Tauxe, a top official with the CDC. The CDC is leading the probe along with the Food and Drug Administration.
The tomato recommendation -- to avoid red plum, Roma and vineless red round tomatoes grown outside certain areas -- remains in effect for all consumers.
The impact of the jalapeño warning rippled through the food industry yesterday. "We are going to put a hold on our raw jalapeño inventory," said Mark Palmer, spokesman for Sysco, the largest food distributor in North America.
The company will stop distributing as well as receiving the peppers.
The new recommendation is not likely to have as broad an economic impact as the tomato warning because jalapeños are not consumed as widely, but it is likely to add to the woes of growers and importers who have had shipments held in recent days for testing by the FDA.
Investigators have not found the bacteria on any of the peppers they've tested, said David Acheson, a top food safety official with the agency. The FDA is waiting for results on many more samples.
Investigators added jalapeños, cilantro and serrano peppers to the list of suspects last week based on a new round of interviews with people who got sick in June. They began considering other types of produce after people continued to fall ill despite the June 7 warning to avoid certain tomatoes.
The jalapeño warning was based on the results of recent investigations of three large clusters of illnesses involving restaurants, the CDC said. A cluster is when at least two people get sick after eating in the same location in a brief period of time.
Some in the clusters reported eating dishes containing tomatoes and jalapeños, while others said they ate a dish that had jalapeños and did not have tomatoes, cilantro or serrano peppers.
"The accumulated data from all investigations indicate that jalapeño peppers caused some illnesses but that they do not explain all illnesses," the CDC said.