Officials don't know whether the pepper was contaminated in Mexico, Texas, or elsewhere. FROM THE BLADE'S NEWS SERVICES
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found a jalapeno pepper contaminated with the same strain of salmonella that has sickened more than 1,200 people, officials said yesterday.
The pepper, which showed up at a south Texas distribution facility, originated in Mexico but could have been contaminated in a variety of places, the FDA said.
"FDA has found a genetically matched Salmonella saintpaul isolate from a distribution center called Agricola Zaragosa in McAllen, Texas," said Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the FDA.
The FDA said no one should eat or serve uncooked jalapeno or serrano peppers, which have a similar appearance, anywhere in the United States.
But the latest jalapeno discovery, the equivalent of a fingerprint, does not solve the mystery.
Authorities still do not know where the pepper became tainted - on the farm, in the
Texas distribution center, or at some stop in between, such as a packing house.
Nor are they saying the tainted pepper exonerates tomatoes sold earlier in the spring that consumers until last week had been told were the prime suspect.
"There may be more than one vehicle here," said Dr. Robert Tauxe of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The tomato cases are not exonerated," Dr. Acheson added. Still, "this genetic match is a very important break in the case."
The tainted pepper "is an important clue, but the investigation is far from complete," said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the consumer advocacy Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The Texas plant has suspended sales of fresh jalapenos and recalled those shipped since June 30, shipments it said were made to Georgia and Texas.
FDA said no other produce currently in the plant has tested positive for salmonella.
The outbreak of the salmonella strain has made 1,251 people sick and put 229 into hospitals, Dr. Tauxe said.
Two elderly men died of unrelated conditions while infected with the strain, the CDC added.
Last Thursday, U.S. regulators lifted a warning on tomatoes not because tomatoes have been cleared from suspicion, but because any that could have been contaminated would have spoiled and been discarded by that time.
The last reported case of Salmonella saintpaul was on July 4, Dr. Tauxe said, but the outbreak is considered to be ongoing.
The FDA said inspectors are in Mexico searching for a possible source of the contamination. It is not clear whether the small plant in McAllen, Texas, could be the source of the entire outbreak, which has sickened people in 43 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada.
"This is primarily just a distribution point. Our understanding is they may do some sorting of the products there," said Steve Solomon, deputy director of the Office of Regional Operations at the FDA.
Mexican agriculture ministry spokesman Marco Antonio Sifuentes said Mexico was opening an investigation into the case.
Mexico maintains that the strain of bacteria that sickened people in the United States has never been found in Mexico.
The Texas firm also distributes tomatillos, a small, green, husked, tomato-like fruit.
Dr. Acheson said that the plant had been targeted for testing after the FDA traced one cluster of illness.
"We are working back from a population of patients who got sick in a single geographic area that ate in a single place," he said.
"We asked where peppers linked to that cluster came from."
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, said the FDA needs better techniques for tracing food to its source.
"This is far too long for an outbreak to spread unresolved, and it is unacceptable for public health, farmers, and the food and produce industry," Mr. Harkin said.
Dr. Acheson said that the investigation of this outbreak is the most complex he has ever worked on.
Food safety experts say that it has been especially difficult because people had trouble recalling what they had eaten before they became ill, and all the products indicated, such as fresh tomatoes and peppers, had been discarded by the time inspectors could follow up.
Salmonella poisoning is very common, with 40,000 cases and 400 deaths each year in the United States alone.