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Officials Report Massive Salmonella Outbreak Waning

Aug 22, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the massive, nationwide Salmonella outbreak that was linked mainly to fresh hot serrano and jalepeno peppers imported from Mexico is ending.  This report was made amid reports that contaminated shipments had been turned back at the US border well before the outbreak and that some restaurants and grocery stores are still buying the imported, possibly tainted, peppers.

Federal officials maintain that tomatoes played a role in some of the early illnesses; however, investigations of case clusters that emerged later in the outbreak implicated jalapeno and serrano peppers.  In July, authorities found the Salmonella enterica serotype Saintpaul outbreak strain on a jalapeno pepper at a produce importer in McAllen, Texas and at a patient's home in Colorado.  During testing at a farm in Mexico, authorities also found positive samples from both irrigation water and a serrano pepper.

In a CDC update yesterday, the outbreak is ongoing but has slowed, "The average number of persons who became ill in recent weeks continues to decrease, indicating that the outbreak is ending," the agency said in its update.  Since April, 1,434 cases were linked to the outbreak, which sickened patients in 43 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada.  To date, at least 273 patients have been hospitalized and officials said illnesses may have contributed to the death of two older Texas men who had preexisting medical conditions.  The CDC also estimates that the latest illness onset date is August 5.  One patient who fell ill early on in April was removed from the case count because additional testing indicated the Salmonella Saintpaul isolate that sickened him/her did not match the outbreak strain.

Meanwhile, Mexican jalapeno and serrano peppers continue to be sold in the U.S. even though, in July, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials advised consumers not to eat fresh Mexican jalapenos and serranos.  Also, Texas-based produce distributor Agricola Zaragoza, recalled its jalapeno peppers after one tested positive for the outbreak strain.  Additionally, Raul Ramirez, a produce manager at a Los Angeles–based distributor reported that buyers of the Mexican peppers, which his company sells, are typically small Hispanic grocers and small restaurants.  He and another Texas-based distributor confirmed that large supermarkets and restaurants are avoiding the Mexican peppers.

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.  AP's analysis revealed that 88 shipments were blocked, 10% because of Salmonella contamination. In the last year, Salmonella was found in 85 of 158 shipments of fresh and dried chiles that the FDA inspected.


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