Souce of Salmonella contamination identified

by Stephanie XBloyd
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WASHINGTON — On July 30, at the first of two hearings to examine the recent Salmonella investigation, Dr. David Acheson, director of food safety for the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.), announced that the bacteria strain responsible for the outbreak was traced to a farm in Mexico.

He said investigators collected both a tainted serrano pepper and a tainted irrigation water sample from a farm in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, that matched the genetic fingerprint of the Salmonella saintpaul strain cited in the outbreak.

Since April, 1,319 people in 43 states, the District of Columbia and Canada have been diagnosed with Salmonella infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The F.D.A. cleared domestically grown jalapeño and serrano peppers July 25. The agency now is advising consumers to avoid raw jalapeño peppers, and the foods that contain them, that were grown, harvested or packed in Mexico until further notice.

On July 28, officials in Colorado found a tainted jalapeño pepper that was directly linked to a sick consumer. The sample was the second jalapeño uncovered in the investigation. On July 21, one jalapeño sample was found at a Texas distributor with a positive genetic match to the Salmonella saintpaul strain. The F.D.A. said a different farm in Mexico supplied the Agricola Zaragoza plant in McAllen, Texas, which was the source of the first tainted jalapeño sample.

So far, the two cases are connected by a packing facility in Nuevo Leon that handles jalapeño and serrano peppers, as well as tomatoes. Mr. Acheson said at the hearing that samples from the packing facility that connects the two farms, as well as Agricola Zaragoza, had not tested positive for the Salmonella strain.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said the tainted pepper it found was purchased at a local Wal-Mart, most likely on June 24, and that the individual became ill on July 4.

The F.D.A. didn’t formally clear tomatoes in the outbreak until July 17, when it began investigating peppers after the number of illnesses continued to increase, even though the agency issued a warning against consuming certain types of tomatoes.

The identification of the Salmonella source has not assuaged the anger of those affected by the F.D.A.’s investigation. On July 31, Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson appeared before a congressional subcommittee to discuss the federal government’s handling of the ongoing Salmonella outbreak and its impact on Florida’s tomato industry.

"One of our greatest frustrations is that Florida was as implicated as Mexico from the very beginning of the investigation yet a simple review of the number of Salmonella cases per state showed that the vast majority were concentrated in the West," he said. "Florida had only three cases in a state of 18 million people. Given the large amount of Florida tomatoes that are consumed in our state, if Florida-grown tomatoes had been the source, one would logically expect us to have a high number of cases.

"Since our tomatoes were in the marketplace at the same time as Mexico it may have been theoretically possible for Florida to be the source. It was not, however, plausible that we were based upon the geographic distribution of illnesses. We have repeatedly raised this issue to F.D.A. yet they continue to maintain that Florida could have been the source of the outbreak and Florida-grown tomatoes have yet to be exonerated officially.

"In fact, Dr. David Acheson, F.D.A.’s Associate Commissioner for Foods, told The New York Times as late as June 19 that the ‘tainted tomatoes were probably grown in Mexico or central or southern Florida.’ A statement like this without strong data to corroborate this allegation is tantamount to a death knell in terms of consumer confidence in an agricultural commodity."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, August 5, 2008, starting on Page 10. Click here to search that archive.

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