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“We’ve had the same problem with other products in past years, which shows us the food safety system in this country is outdated and underfunded.”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)