By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Federal officials investigating a three-month-old salmonella outbreak have isolated the bacteria in a jalapeño pepper from a small distribution facility in McAllen, Tex., and yesterday warned consumers nationwide to avoid eating raw jalapeños or products that contain them until more is known.
Investigators found the contaminated jalapeño at Agricola Zaragosa in McAllen, after tracing back jalapeños eaten by restaurant patrons who got sick. The company has stopped distributing jalapeño peppers and is recalling jalapeños sold since June 30 to customers in Georgia and Texas. The tainted pepper was grown in Mexico, but investigators don't know where the contamination occurred.
"All we know is a pepper in this facility is positive with this strain. We don't know if it became contaminated in this distribution facility or at some point leading up to this facility," David Acheson, a top official with the Food and Drug Administration, said.
None of the other samples taken at the facility tested positive for the outbreak strain Salmonella saintpaul. And officials said the finding has not cleared the initial suspect -- raw tomatoes -- as a cause.
Agricola Zaragosa also handles tomatillas, FDA officials said. A voice mail message left at the company last night was not returned. According to business information firm Dun and Bradstreet, Agricola Zaragosa had sales of $600,000 in 2007 and has fewer than 10 employees.
The finding is a major break in what has been described as one of the most difficult and complicated outbreak probes in recent memory. Although it doesn't answer all the questions investigators may have, it increases the possibility that they can find the original source and should help them move more quickly, making their efforts more focused. They had been testing peppers at the Mexican border.
As of yesterday, the outbreak has sickened 1,251 people in 43 states, the District of Columbia and Canada since April. While new reports of illness continue to come in, the outbreak appears to have peaked in June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. The last day people reported falling ill, July 4, has not changed in several days.
The number of illnesses makes this the largest outbreak of food-borne illness in a decade. New Mexico officials first identified the outbreak in May and, based on interviews with people who got sick, identified certain types of fresh tomatoes as the likely cause.
On June 7, the FDA warned consumers to avoid tomatoes, triggering an estimated $100 million in losses for the tomato industry. After people continued to get sick, investigators began looking at cilantro, jalapeño and serrano peppers as potential carriers. On Thursday, federal officials declared all tomatoes now on the market safe to eat but refused to clear them as a possible cause. They said both tomatoes and peppers could have spread the bacteria.
CDC officials are hoping another set of interviews with people who got sick since June 1 in Arizona and New Mexico, which had some of the earliest cases and has the highest proportion of them, will reveal whether "there was something about the way jalapeños were used in people's homes or in restaurants that just failed to get reported," said Robert Tauxe, a CDC deputy director.
However Tauxe conceded that investigators may never know the whole story.
"It is possible we will not be able to determine ultimately whether tomatoes were part of this conclusively or not," he said.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.