WASHINGTON – A three-month-old salmonella outbreak initially linked to raw tomatoes has been traced to a jalapeno and serrano pepper farm in Mexico.
Investigators discovered the Salmonella saintpaul strain in irrigation water and in serrano pepper samples from the farm, which is in the northeastern state of Nuevo Leon partially bordering Texas. The Food and Drug Administration is now warning consumers not to eat raw serrano peppers, in addition to raw jalapenos.
“We have a smoking gun, it appears,” Lonnie King, a director at the Centers for Disease Control, said Wednesday.
The discovery of the outbreak strain on a farm does not answer all of the questions confronting investigators. But it will improve their chances of stopping the outbreak, which has sickened more than 1,300 people since April. It also gets them closer to a full explanation of an outbreak that stumped the nation’s most experienced disease detectives and drew criticism from tomato growers and Congress about the FDA’s and CDC’s handling of the case.
Lawmakers Wednesday began the first of two hearings on what went wrong in the investigation, which was initially focused on tomatoes and later expanded to include jalapeno and serrano peppers.
Almost as soon as he took his seat in front of the microphone, the FDA’s top food safety official, David Acheson, went off script, starting not with his prepared testimony but with news of the Salmonella saintpaul finding in Mexico, information he said he had learned just two hours before the hearing.
The discovery did not let the FDA and the CDC off the hook entirely. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., chairman of the House Agriculture subcommittee, asked Acheson to get back to the panel with answers to several questions, including when he first heard CDC officials suspected jalapeno peppers were making people sick.
Investigators did not look into whether jalapeno and serrano peppers could be making people sick until early July when people continued to get sick despite a nationwide warning against eating raw red plum, Roma and vineless red round tomatoes.
Investigators have yet to find a contaminated tomato, and many growers assert that tomatoes were never involved. FDA and CDC officials, however, continued to insist that tomatoes and jalapeno peppers could have spread the bacteria if they were contaminated on the same farm or if one cross-contaminated the other somewhere in the distribution chain.
The discovery of Salmonella saintpaul in both jalapeno and serrano peppers partly vindicated proponents of that theory. Acheson told lawmakers Wednesday that investigators may still find a packing facility or warehouse where tomatoes and jalapeno and serrano peppers crossed paths.
“We know (the salmonella) was on two (produce items); it could easily have been on three,” Acheson said. “It is certainly plausible that tomatoes were responsible for the early phases.”