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Even Before Salmonella Outbreak, Mexican Peppers Often Turned Back for Filth, Disease, Even Poison

Aug 19, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The Associated Press reports that federal inspectors at U.S. border crossings repeatedly turned back filthy, disease-ridden Mexican pepper shipments in the months prior to the recent Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak that sickened 1,400 people.  The outbreak was ultimately traced to Mexican chilies, but no significant action was taken and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials expressed surprise as recently as last week saying that Mexican peppers were not spotted as a problem before.

Meanwhile, an AP analysis of FDA records revealed peppers and chilies were consistently the top Mexican crop rejected by border inspectors this last year.  Since January, 88 shipments of fresh and dried chilies were turned away; ten percent were contaminated with Salmonella; and in the past year, eight percent of the 158 intercepted shipments of fresh and dried chilies were Salmonella-tainted.  Despite this, Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's food safety chief, says peppers were not a cause for concern. "We have not typically seen problems with peppers," he said. "Our import sampling is typically focused on areas where we know we've got problems or we've seen problems in the past, which is why we're now increasing our sampling for peppers."

The AP also reported that food-safety advocates question why the FDA did not notice the peppers being stopped at the border and why it took this year’s massive Salmonella outbreak for the FDA to improve its screening of companies known for shipping dirty chilies.  "If the fact that they were showing up on problem lists for a year doesn't make them high-risk, I don't know what does," said Ami Gadhia, policy counsel with Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. "If it's across the board, then that's a systemic problem that FDA needs to be able to nimbly respond to."  In mid-July, officials determined jalapenos could be the cause of this country’s largest food borne illness outbreak, tracing tainted pepper shipments back to two Mexican farms.

In general, the federal government inspects less than one percent of foreign food entering the U.S. and has no information on exactly how much of the nearly 491,200 metric tons of Mexican peppers imported last year were turned away; however, in the past year, FDA data indicates dozens of cases were turned back over filth and illegal pesticides.  In one case, the produce was turned back over something poisonous.  According to the Department of Agriculture (USDA), 84 percent of all fresh peppers eaten in the U.S. originate from Mexico.

Bob Buchanan, a former senior science adviser at FDA, noted that because the FDA sets priorities for the food it considers to be high-risk years in advance and dried peppers and other imported spices were mentioned on a 2006 FDA manual instructing inspectors on which high-risk foods warranted increased checks.  Because of this, the FDA has long considered Salmonella to be a risk in dried chilies.  Likely, no one focused on raw peppers since they were not considered a high-risk crop, he said.

Acheson said the FDA increased testing of certain Mexican produce and found more cases of Salmonella contamination, from a different strain, in jalapenos, basil, and cilantro.  In July, six separate shipments of fresh jalapenos and serranos were stopped when inspectors found they were Salmonella-tainted, according to FDA data.

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