Jalapenos eyed in Salmonella outbreak probe

Jul 7, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – Federal investigators are eyeing jalapeno peppers as the possible culprit in a nationwide Salmonella outbreak that has now sickened 943 people in 40 states and involved at least one death.

According to unnamed sources who are familiar with the probe, investigators are looking at jalapenos as a leading suspect in the outbreak, the Wall Street Journal reported on Jul 5. Investigators are also considering cilantro and Serrano peppers, two other produce items that are commonly served with fresh tomatoes in Mexican cuisine, sources told the newspaper.

The CDC said in a Jul 4 update on the investigation that the identification in Texas and other states of many clusters of patients who ate at the same restaurants has led the agency to broaden its investigation, though tomatoes are still strongly linked to the illnesses.

Glen Nowak, a CDC spokesman, told the Journal that the agency is focusing on 29 clusters linked to restaurants, most of which serve Mexican food and are not part of national chains.

Today health inspectors on the Mexican border planned to begin stopping and checking shipments of ingredients common to Mexican food coming into the United States, according to Tommy Thompson, former US secretary of health and human services, CNN reported on Jul 4. Thompson told CNN he had been told about the plan.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Jul 4 that it had linked another death to the outbreak, which involves the relatively rare Salmonella enterica Saintpaul strain. The man, from Texas, was in his eighties. (In earlier updates, the CDC said salmonellosis might have contributed to the death of a Texas man in his sixties who died of cancer.)

Based on information from 645 patients, at least 130 people were hospitalized, according to the CDC update. The outbreak has spread to 40 states and the District of Columbia, though many of the cases occurred in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Illinois. The most recent illness onset date is Jun 26, which is 6 days later than was listed in the CDC's previous update and a sign that the outbreak is ongoing.

Also, the CDC said one ill person with salmonellosis matching the outbreak strain has been identified in Ontario, Canada. The patient said he or she had traveled to the United States and got sick upon return to Canada.

The outbreak, which began in early June, prompted federal health officials to advise consumers to avoid eating raw red round, Roma, or plum tomatoes from growing areas that had not been cleared by investigators. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not found Salmonella Saintpaul in any of the tomato samples it has tested.

Some infectious disease experts have criticized the FDA and CDC response to the outbreak, saying that poor communication with state and local health departments and missteps with case-control studies have hobbled the investigation. Last week the FDA said it was tapping into a larger laboratory network to speed the lab investigation.

See also:

Jul 4 CDC update

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