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Salmonella Outbreak Now Linked to Water and Serrano Peppers in Mexico

Jul 31, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak that began in April, sickened over 1,200, and hospitalized over 240 is now being linked to irrigation water and serrano peppers at the Nuevo Leon farm in Mexico.  The outbreak has affected people in 43 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada and was initially attributed to a variety of raw tomatoes.  Meanwhile, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) previously announced it discovered salmonella on a jalapeño pepper imported from Mexico at the Agricola Zarigosa produce distribution center in McAllen, Texas.  Serranos are a type of chili pepper similar to jalapeños, but hotter.

Laboratory testing by the FDA confirms that both a serrano sample and a sample of irrigation water collected by agency investigators on a farm in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico—the farm’s business address is in Nuevo Leon, Mexico—contain Salmonella Saintpaul with the same genetic fingerprint as the bacterial strain causing the current outbreak in North America. This particular Salmonella Saintpaul fingerprint is normally seen in only 25 cases a year, said Ian Williams, chief of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Outbreak Net.

The FDA said traceback studies of food eaten by victims indicates the contaminated jalapeño pepper originated in Mexico and is now advising consumers to avoid raw jalapeño peppers grown in Mexico and any foods containing raw jalapeño peppers grown in Mexico.  Dr. David Acheson, FDA food safety chief, called the finding "a key breakthrough."  Acheson was speaking at a congressional hearing held with the intention of determining why the government originally linked the outbreak to tomatoes.  Acheson said the science that implicated tomatoes was strong; the possibility some tomatoes were contaminated has not yet been dismissed.

Last week, the FDA reported that only Mexican-grown raw jalapeño and serrano peppers were linked to the salmonella outbreak; however, Mexican officials called those findings "premature.”  Initially, tomatoes seemed the outbreak’s likeliest source prompting the FDA to advise consumers to avoid certain raw tomatoes on June 7, which caused grocery chains and some restaurants nationwide to stop offering them.  The FDA subsequently lifted the tomato ban, determining that tomatoes currently in fields and stores are safe.  

Spokesman Michael Herndon said that no one should eat raw serrano peppers from Mexico.  Cooked or pickled peppers from cans or jars are not included in the warning.   The FDA is also advising consumers to also avoid raw jalapeño peppers from Mexico, and any foods that contain them.

The test results just announced are part of the FDA's continuing investigation that has involved tracing back, through complex distribution channels, the product origins linkd with illness clusters.  The process also includes inspections and evaluations of farms and facilities in the US and Mexico and the collection and testing of environmental and product samples. One traceback led to a packing facility in Mexico, and to a particular farm, where the agency obtained the samples.

The FDA continues to analyze the samples taken at various Mexican farms and, if  laboratory results warrant, will provide consumers with additional cautions or warnings.

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