By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
Friday, August 29, 2008
The government said yesterday that the salmonella outbreak that sickened at least 1,440 people appears to be over, but its ultimate source may never be known, partly because of shortcomings in the nation's food safety system.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration said they found strong evidence to implicate jalapeño and serrano peppers, and a farm in Mexico, in the largest outbreak of foodborne illness in a decade. Investigators were unable to clear domestic and imported tomatoes, however, even though the evidence against tomatoes is weaker.
The FDA also lifted its warning that consumers avoid eating jalapeño and serrano peppers from Mexico. But officials pointedly said that doesn't guarantee another such outbreak can be prevented.
"None of us can provide a cast-iron guarantee that Salmonella saintpaul will not re-emerge," said David Acheson, the FDA's food safety chief. "We have not identified the total source of this."
FDA and CDC officials said steps needed to improve the safety of fresh produce include: Procedures and more funding to allow state laboratories to test samples of suspected pathogens more rapidly; congressional action to give the FDA authority to impose produce safety regulations; and industry action to develop a faster system for tracing to the farm any produce suspected in an outbreak.
The outbreak began in late April and by early August the number of new cases had fallen to levels that would be considered normal. Most victims got sick during May and June. No new restaurant clusters of cases have emerged since early July. That "is an important indication that this particular outbreak is over," said Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC's foodborne illness branch.
Texas was the hardest-hit state, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the all confirmed cases. People were sickened in 43 states and the District.
The joint investigation by the CDC and the FDA found strong evidence that jalapeño peppers were a major carrier of the outbreak bacteria, and that serrano peppers were also a carrier. It was the first time that jalapeños were implicated in such an outbreak.
The salmonella strain was traced back to a jalapeño pepper at a produce distribution center in Texas that received peppers from Mexico. But FDA investigators struck out when they performed tests at the farm in Mexico where they thought the pepper had been grown.
Instead, they found the bacteria on another Mexican farm about 100 miles away from the first. The outbreak strain was isolated from water in a pond used for irrigation and from a sample of serrano peppers. Acheson said it is not clear that the second farm was the source of the outbreak.