Jul 21, 2008 (CIDRAP News) Federal authorities announced today that investigators working at a Texas produce facility found Salmonella that genetically matches the nationwide outbreak strain on a jalapeno pepper.
David Acheson, MD, associate commissioner for foods at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said at a media briefing today that the jalapeno sample was obtained from Agricola Zaragoza, Inc., a small company based in McAllen, Tex., that received jalapeno peppers from a farm in Mexico. However, he said investigators haven't yet determined where the peppers were contaminated with Salmonella enterica serotype Saintpaul and that an FDA team is at the farm now.
"One sample doesn't give us the whole story, but it allows us to focus on the production chain," Acheson said, adding that Agricola Zaragoza is recalling all of its jalapeno peppers.
Based on what the FDA is calling a "significant break" in the investigation, federal officials are now warning all consumers to avoid eating fresh jalapeno peppers and products that contain them. The FDA isn't limiting its warning to jalapeno peppers from specific sources, Acheson said, because officials aren't sure they if tainted peppers had an opportunity to cross-contaminate jalapenos from other sources at points along the production and distribution chain. The warning does not include processed, cooked, or pickled jalapeno peppers.
Acheson said the warning about Serrano peppers remains in place for high-risk groups, including infants, those with impaired immune systems, and elderly people.
FDA officials said they could not reveal where Agricola Zaragosa sent its peppers after receiving them from Mexico, because the investigation is ongoing. However, they said investigators focused on the company on the basis of information that came from some of the large case clusters that emerged later in the outbreak.
"We need to look at distribution records, and that's happening as we speak," Acheson said. "We need to push the investigation hard to answer those types of questions."
They released little information about other produce items Agricola Zaragoza handles. However, Steve Solomon, deputy director of the FDA's office of regional operations, told reporters that another item the company receives from Mexico is tomatillos, which are similar to tomatoes but are green and have husks.
Robert Tauxe, MD, MPH, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, said despite the new findings and the change in the consumer advisory, officials still have not exonerated tomatoes of a possible role earlier in the outbreak. He said investigators are conducting more detailed case-control studies, particularly in the southwestern states that reported many Salmonella infections.
Tauxe said the outbreak has expanded to 1,251 cases in 43 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada. So far, 229 patients have been hospitalized, and the latest illness onset remains at Jul 4. Two deaths are possibly linked to the outbreak; both were older men from Texas who had chronic illnesses.
He said the CDC is still getting reports of new cases and that the outbreak is considered ongoing, though the numbers reported each day are declining.
In other developments, an official from North Carolina's agriculture department said additional testing at a Charlotte food supplier where Salmonella was found in two produce samples revealed that the strain is Salmonella Oranienburg, not the one responsible for the nationwide outbreak, according to a Jul 19 Associated Press (AP) report.
Joe Reardon, director of the department's food and drug protection division, told the AP the strain, confirmed in North Carolina and Texas, is linked to Grande Produce, a supplier based in Hidalgo, Tex., that has recalled its jalapeno peppers, Serrano peppers, and avocadoes.
He said officials didn't know yet if any Salmonella Oranienburg infections have been reported recently in North Carolina, the AP report said. Texas officials have not received any reports of illnesses related to the strain.
Jul 18 CDC update on Salmonella outbreak
Jul 19 Grande Produce press release
Jul 18 CIDRAP News story "Salmonella found in peppers, but no outbreak link so far"