FDA Officials Narrow Salmonella Warning To Mexican Peppers

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 26, 2008

Federal health officials are one step closer to finding the cause of a three-month-old salmonella outbreak and are now warning consumers to avoid only Mexican-grown raw jalapeño and Serrano peppers.

The Food and Drug Administration revised its advice for consumers yesterday after tracing peppers eaten by clusters of sick restaurant patrons to several farms in Mexico, including one that also grows tomatoes, the food initially blamed for the outbreak.

That farm supplied Agricola Zaragoza, a small produce distributor and repacker in McAllen, Tex., where investigators found a contaminated pepper sample earlier this week. FDA officials don't know yet whether tomatoes were being harvested on the farm in April, when the outbreak began. Investigators have collected samples from all of the farms linked to the clusters and are awaiting lab results.

"What we don't know is if the tomatoes on that farm are implicated in the outbreak," said David Acheson, the FDA's director of food safety.

Consumers can eat domestically grown jalapeño and Serrano peppers without fear of getting infected with Salmonella saintpaul, the strain that has sickened 1,294 people in the United States and Canada.

Serrano peppers from Mexico are also included in the warning because they are sometimes grown on the same farms as jalapeños and handled by the same distributors.

Consumers who aren't sure where their produce comes from should ask their retailer or restaurant.

The FDA more than a week ago declared all raw tomatoes on the market or on their way to market safe to eat, lifting a six-week warning that triggered $100 million in losses for tomato growers and fueled doubts that tomatoes were ever responsible.

Officials from the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been reluctant to clear tomatoes, however, which were identified as a potential cause based on information gathered in the early days of the outbreak in New Mexico and Texas. The CDC is talking to state health officials in New Mexico about reinterviewing some of the earliest victims and asking them more detailed questions about jalapeño and Serrano peppers, said Ian Williams, chief of the CDC's OutbreakNet Team.

The CDC has already dispatched two field teams to help New Mexico, Arizona and the Indian Health Service -- because many cases were reported in the Navajo Nation -- with a new round of face-to-face interviews of people who got sick since June 1. Health officials have said they hope to learn whether the way food was prepared led to underreporting of jalapeño consumption.

Early results from those interviews still show a strong association with tomato consumption, Williams said. Around 85 to 90 percent of those interviewed are reporting tomato consumption compared to a third who said they ate jalapeños.

Discovering a farm in Mexico that grows jalapeño peppers and tomatoes could bolster a theory floated by FDA and CDC officials that both peppers and tomatoes made people sick by being contaminated at the same time or by cross-contaminating the other somewhere along the distribution chain. Foodborne illness experts have said such a scenario is possible but not likely.

However, the two-produce theory "is very much alive at CDC," Williams said.

Domestic growers and U.S. importers of Mexican jalapeños welcomed the revised recommendation, having complained to FDA officials about the blanket warning on all raw jalapeño and Serrano peppers issued Monday after a contaminated pepper was found in Texas. Earlier, when officials began to suspect peppers, the elderly, small children and those with compromised immune systems were advised to avoid peppers.

"What FDA has done is in our viewpoint the correct thing, but they should have expanded it to include areas outside the United States that have no connection with the source of contamination," said John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, a trade group based in Mission, Tex., that represents both growers and importers.

Allison Moore, spokeswoman for the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, a Nogales, Ariz., group representing more than 100 U.S. importers of Mexican produce, said importers need the FDA to find the source.

"Our ultimate wish is they pin it to a specific point in the supply chain, no matter where that happens to be," she said, "so farms that aren't implicated and are doing a good job can continue to sell jalapeños."

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