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Mexican Peppers Still Being Sold Despite Salmonella Risks

Aug 21, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Despite Salmonella risks, fresh serrano and jalepeno peppers from Mexico are still being sold in the United States.  Although federal officials say these fresh Mexican peppers pose a Salmonella risk, the pepper are selling for much less than for what their U.S. counterparts are selling them for.  Distributors now report buyers seem to be small Hispanic grocers and mom and pop restaurants; large supermarkets and restaurants are not touching the Mexican supply.  

"Mexican peppers still are selling," says Raul Ramirez, warehouse manager for Ramirez Brothers, a Los Angeles-based distributor of Mexican jalepenos. "Our customers are asking for them."  Will Steele, CEO of Frontera Produce agrees, saying that Mexican peppers "are growing in prominence."  Because its buyers—large supermarket and restaurant chains don’t want Mexican peppers, Frontera isn't importing them, Steele said.  Forty-pound boxes of U.S.-grown jalapenos sold wholesale for $25 to $35 a box early this week, versus $14 to $16 for Mexican jalepenos, Steele says.  Before the warning, U.S. and Mexican peppers were selling for about the same price.

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning that consumers should avoid fresh jalapeno and serrano peppers from Mexico after Salmonella Saintpaul was found on samples causing the largest foodborne illness outbreak in a decade with 1,434 people sickened by fresh peppers imported from Mexico.  And, although most new illnesses peaked in May, the latest new illness began again August 8, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  In June, fresh tomatoes were blamed for the outbreak, but the focus veered and peppers were being looked at in July.  By then, "A lot of buyers didn't really believe there was a threat," says Ruben Fernandez, owner of Produce Express in San Antonio.  Fernandez says he's distributing Mexican jalapeno peppers to smaller stores and restaurants of all kinds.

Because processing kills bacteria, cooked, canned, or pickled peppers do not pose risks, according to the FDA.  Ramirez says that about 25% of his Mexican pepper customers process the peppers and some importers test for salmonella.  Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia says that many consumers and retailers are likely not aware of the warning.  Imported volumes are expected to be small, says John McClung of the Texas Produce Association. Mexico supplies most of the U.S.’s peppers in winter, but California, North Carolina, and others supply a lot in August, he added.

While the FDA has not banned Mexican jalapenos and serrano peppers import, it recently increased testing at border checkpoints and restricted pepper imports from 12 Mexican firms because of Salmonella.  Future shipments from those 12 firms must test free of Salmonella before the FDA will release them for sale.

Meanwhile, an Associated Press analysis of FDA records revealed peppers and chilies were consistently the top Mexican crop rejected by border inspectors this last year, which begs the question as to why it took this year’s massive Salmonella outbreak for the FDA to improve its screening of companies known for shipping dirty chilies?  In general, the federal government inspects less than one percent of foreign food entering the U.S.; 84 percent of all fresh peppers eaten in the U.S. originate from Mexico.

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