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Investigators find smoking pepper, but salmonella investigation goes on

by Hilary Oliver

U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigators announced yesterday that they have found a genetic match to the outbreak-causing Salmonella Saintpaul strain—previously linked to tomatoes—in a jalapeño pepper sample from a distribution center in McAllen, Texas. The jalapeño was grown in Mexico, but according to the FDA, that does not mean it was contaminated in Mexico. The indicated distribution center, Agricola Zaragoza, is working with the FDA to voluntarily recall all jalapeño peppers the company has distributed since June 30, and the FDA has advised all retailers and foodservice providers to discard raw jalapeños. The FDA is still also warning high-risk populations to avoid eating raw Serrano peppers.

The FDA reported that, though the outbreak appears to have peaked, it is ongoing. And because epidemiologic data suggest the entire outbreak cannot be explained by the recently discovered jalapeño contamination, the FDA is tracing the pepper's path through the supply chain, looking for the source of contamination.

According to the FDA, part of the reason the investigation has taken so long is that for some produce—such as tomatoes—lot numbers and other information identifying the growers might not be included on receipts and shipping records, so investigators must review records and interview produce handlers. This adds to the time and resources needed to trace the produce back to its source. Plus, produce at the retail level often has no identifying package, product code or "sell by" date.

A statement from the Center for Science in the Public Interest suggested that nailing down the outbreak's source could have happened much more quickly if the current administration had not "watered down" traceability tools that Congress adopted in the 2002 Bioterrorism Act, such as requirements for distributors to record lot or code numbers and requirements for record availability within four to eight hours.

Florida tomato growers estimate that economic losses incurred during the outbreak could total more than $500 million, though the FDA now holds that "there is no reason to believe that tomatoes currently on the market are contaminated with Salmonella Saintpaul." In June, Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, said the losses were already staggering. "Crops have remained in fields, packinghouses and in the distribution system," Brown said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1,200 people in 43 states have been identified with the same strain of Salmonella Saintpaul since April.

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