Health Officials: Did We Say Tomatoes? We Meant Jalapeño Peppers

After causing the tomato industry to lose an estimated $100 million, health investigators have essentially recanted their contaminated tomato theory and have focused their attention on jalapeño peppers. The Baltimore Sun reports that new interviews with salmonella victims have revealed that many of them ate salsa containing jalepeños. Other common Mexican food ingredients such as cilantro are also being investigated, however, no new samples have tested positive for salmonella. Details, inside…

The article says,

The outbreak, which began 12 weeks ago, is believed to be the largest of its kind, and new cases continue to emerge. It has sickened more than 920 people across the country, up from 756 one week ago, and sent more than 110 to the hospital. In Maryland, 29 people have been confirmed to have the illness, which can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and, in severe cases, death.

In late May, investigators began focusing on tomatoes as the probable source of the outbreak. But they expanded their investigation last week, asking 100 labs around the country to help, because the number of new infections kept growing despite the short shelf life of tomatoes and warnings to avoid certain varieties.

Delays in pinpointing the cause of the outbreak have frustrated consumers, angered the produce industry and prompted members of Congress to call for food safety reforms.

“How sad is that? We can’t even really figure out what it is,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat who has proposed food tracking and mandatory recall measures. “We’ve had the same problem with other products in past years, which shows us the food safety system in this country is outdated and underfunded.”

Chile peppers are largely grown in Mexico, Central America and warm weather U.S. states such as Florida. Food-safety specialists said jalapenos are not a common cause of bacterial outbreaks and counseled caution about rushing to judgment that the peppers are responsible for this one.

Contaminated green chile peppers in Colorado sickened 80 people in 1998 and 60 in 2001, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which tracks food-borne illnesses. Neither outbreak involved salmonella bacteria.

A likely source of jalepeno contamination is the water used to irrigate plants or wash peppers after they’re picked, said Robert B. Gravani, a food science professor at Cornell University.

Any wagers on which food will get hit next on the FDA’s dart board?

Salmonella signs point to peppers [Baltimore Sun]
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Saydur says:

    Well, this is going to prompt some outcry from tomato farms. The big corporate ones will lobby for enough reimbursement to make a profit, while the smaller farms are likely to go under before that can happen, if they haven’t already.

    It’s also going to prompt more than a few racist remarks, and I suspect at least one diatribe by an anti-immigration pundit that tries to link Mexican immigrants to terrorism through contaminated food. It would be funny if the author were not entirely serious.

    It’s a shame the FDA can’t get their act together, but that’s no surprise considering the rampant idiocy shown elsewhere regarding government and agriculture.

  2. opsomath says:

    I’ve heard the TSA’s post-911 policies concerning airport security (for instance, the infamous “ziplok baggie” rule for liquids) referred to as “security theater;” designed to give the impression of taking effective action, while not actually, y’know, doing anything that might prevent future problems of the sort that prompted the action.

    In the TSA case, the costs of security theater are levied directly against the consumer, in the form of delay, frustration, and the feeling that our national security policies are being made by monkeys swigging jug wine and throwing darts at a target. In this case, the industry gets hit first, but I don’t doubt they’ll pass on their costs to consumers.

    The price we pay so some government pencil-pusher can present the appearance of effective action…

  3. mattbrown says:

    But salmonellomato sounds so much better than salmoño peppers.

  4. mac-phisto says:

    another great argument for local agriculture – support supermarkets that buy locally, ask if you’re not sure & consider joining a CSA share or seeking our farmers’ markets nearby.

    you just can’t depend on a handful of bureaucrats to protect you from a massive global food system – so limit your exposure to it where you can.

  5. azntg says:

    Absolutely unbelievable! But at the same time, it’s just a sign of ineptitude that seem common in today’s bureaucracy and regulatory agencies.

    So, not only did the FDA screw over the smaller farms, they also kept us all at risk with a red herring too? Man, those being so paranoid about the government never had a better reason for their case.

  6. weakdome says:

    Oh please please please let it be Cilantro. I hate that crap, it’s horrible. Tastes like licking a lawnmower blade.

  7. zingbot says:

    Mmm. Salmon-stuffed chili peppers sound almost as delicious as salmon-stuffed tomatoes.

  8. Applekid ┬──┬ ノ( ゜-゜ノ) says:

    “Any wagers on which food will get hit next on the FDA’s dart board?”

    I’d bet three national newspaper headlines and four flustered congressmen that it’ll be milk, despite pasteurization.

  9. DrJimmy says:


  10. @mac-phisto: consider joining a CSA share

    A bunch of states joined the CSA a while back and we all know how THAT turned out…. ;)

    Jalapeños and cilantro: Salmonalsa!

  11. Nogard13 says:

    Does this really surprise anyone? The federal government has always been incompetent, but under GWB, it’s become comical.

  12. spikespeigel says:

    Oh, crap. All I put on my pizza is jalapeno peppers. Does this mean I’m a goner? Le sigh.

  13. ThinkerTDM says:

    @spikespeigel: Only if you try to get on a plane with those.

  14. Norcross says:

    Considering I live where a lot of this stuff is grown (west-central Florida), it amazes me that this happens. Maybe I’m strange, but I’ve always been one to, ya know, wash my fruits and veggies before eating them. Same thing when I was a chef in a restaraunt. We washed them.

  15. mrmysterious says:

    Don’t expect tomatoes at Subway/Quznos/etc. anytime soon. They are lovin’ the increased profits on their subs.

  16. raisitup says:

    I had tomatoes on a Subway sandwich a week and a half ago.

  17. Mayor McRib says:

    I say tomato.
    You say jalapeño.
    Let’s call the whole thing off.

  18. weezedog says:

    What makes me so freakin mad about this whole “scare” is that 920 people out of the 400 Million people in this country is only 23 BILLIONTH’s of 1%, that’s .00023% of the population. Yeah that was soooo worth the 100 Million dollars it cost the tomato industry.
    Guess what, nothings 100% perfect, whenever you eat out you take the risk of possibly getting sick. It’s called ACCEPTABLE RISK, suck it up and deal with it.

  19. weezedog says:

    Sorry wrong math, it’s .0000023 and 23 Millionth’s of 1% I think, was never good at math.

  20. MayorBee says:

    @weezedog: That’s only 23 hundred-thousandths of 1%, or 23 ten-millionths of the population, no billionths involved. One billionth of the population would be .4 people, one billionth of 1% of the population would be .004 people.

    While I think if there is a food contamination scare where people’s lives are at risk, an alert should be put out. However, we should not be subjected to false alarms.

    On a brighter note, perhaps some people stayed away from salsa altogether because of the tomato issue.

  21. MayorBee says:

    @weezedog: :) I do agree with most of your sentiment, though. You could die crossing the street, but you should be given fair warning of that.

    (why don’t we have an edit button?)

  22. @Norcross: If the contaminants are in the water that’s being used to water the plants, as was the case with the spinach last year, you can wash it all you want, but the contaminants are inside the cellular structure of the plants and won’t “wash off.”

    Using pig and cow runoff from factory farms is a major culprit.

  23. @Saydur:

    It’s also going to prompt more than a few racist remarks, and I suspect at least one diatribe by an anti-immigration pundit that tries to link Mexican immigrants to terrorism through contaminated food. It would be funny if the author were not entirely serious.

    Wow, even better than a Straw Man argument – the “Presumptive Straw Man” – creating an argument that’s never been made, and shooting it down to paint one’s enemies in a bad light!

  24. oneliketadow says:

    @weakdome: It tastes like soap to me!

  25. oneliketadow says:

    @InfiniTrent: Preemptive Straw Man?

    Besides, what is the smoking gun was in the form of a really good rant?

  26. Trai_Dep says:

    The next food will be race horses. Because the Republicans love putting former race-horse guys in charge of our national safety.

  27. SkokieGuy says:

    Yeah! FDA cutbacks insure that even more incidents of food poisoning and death will occur!

    Yeah! Genetically modified food, irradiated food and cloned animals require no labelling, guaranteeing if people become sick and die, there is no way to trace it back to this type of food. Superwonderful protection for all the wonderful international corporations controlling our food supply!

    Thank you so much, Bush & Co. for making the USA a more convenient target for terrorism. (As long as their evil plots don’t involve more than 3oz of liquid or an opaque baggie. You’ve really foiled THOSE evil plots).

  28. Corydon says:

    @weakdome: @oneliketadow: Hands off my cilantro! That stuff is awesome!

    Although given the way things are heading, expanding my vegetable garden is looking better and better every year.

  29. Rachael says:

    Goodie, now this will encourage the FDA to continue whining about their lack of funding. If only they had more money, then they might have wrongly blamed another food item in their desperate dash to give the media answers!

  30. jcargill says:

    Veggies grown in Mexico; irrigated then washed with untreated Mexican water, shipped to a store/restaurant near you. I guess you don’t have to travel south of the Border to get Montezuma’s Revenge any more! Just another reason to eat local produce.

  31. dragonfire1481 says:

    I smell huge lawsuits from the Tomato industry…

  32. SharkD says:


    The price we pay so some government pencil-pusher can present the appearance of effective action…

    Actually, it’s the price we pay for letting 49 and 51 percent of those going to the polls elect a cabal of anti-government ideologues to the executive branch for two terms.

    Most of the people making key decisions in the Bush Administration are political appointees, even if they’re in a position reserved for careerists.

  33. Trai_Dep says:

    @sharkd: Shh! It’s the GUMMIT’S fault, not incompetent management thereof.
    What kind of unholy microbe lives on a jalapeño? The mind reels…

  34. SinA says:

    Tomatoes… Jalapenos… signs are starting to indicate that salmonella is being spread by a salsa double-dipper!

  35. r4__ says:

    @Trai_Dep: it’s a new strain of salmonella: spicy salmonella.

    man, now I want sushi.

  36. synergy says:

    @Trai_Dep: I agree! It was my first thought. I mean, I’m pretty sure capsaicin is some sort of defense mechanism of the plant. Apparently it doesn’t effect Salmonella??

  37. Bladefist says:

    @Trai_Dep: One comment from a democrat congress woman does not make this a political article. Did you read the new comments rules?

    I think this is so hard to track down because of the pure volume of food that is made. I don’t think more regulation will do anything except cost us consumers tons more. I think our system works pretty well, and accidents like this will happen. It appears the government and private sector is taking this matter very seriously, and continuing the investigation into a very complex field. As far as capitalism/politics is concerned, sick consumers aren’t paying consumers, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to fix this.

  38. PølάrβǽЯ says:

    @MayorBee: United States Population: 301,139,947 (July 2007 est.) According to []

  39. trujunglist says:

    Considering that I eat fresh jalapenos on a near daily basis (and large quantities of them as well, i can’t get enough of them) including last night, I’m probably dead. Or not. I also eat a lot of tomatoes.

  40. So now is the Mexican vegetable to blame? Are they going to say it’s also taking the jobs of American vegetables?

  41. VidaLondres says:

    Cilantros, jalapenos, tomatoes?!?!!?!


    What the hell am I going to eat with my ramen and peanut butter?! We’re in a recession!

  42. FLConsumer says:

    @Saydur: I’ve actually already heard anti-Mexican comments related to the foodbourne-illness stories, not just the most recent tomato scare. I know of one verified story where illegals were legitimately to blame for the outbreak, but it’s a very isolated case.

  43. HeartBurnKid says:

    And here I just got back from eating a jalapeno chicken sandwich for lunch… hoo boy.