WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found a jalapeno pepper contaminated with a strain of salmonella that has sickened more than 1,200 people, officials said on Monday.
The pepper, which showed up at a south Texas distribution facility, originated in Mexico but could have been contaminated in a variety of places, the FDA said.
“FDA has found a genetically matched Salmonella saintpaul isolate from a distribution center called Agricola Zaragosa in McAllen, Texas,” Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the FDA, told reporters in a telephone briefing.
The FDA said no one should eat or serve uncooked jalapeno or serrano peppers, which have a similar appearance, anywhere in the United States.
The outbreak of the salmonella strain, known as Salmonella stpaul, has now made 1,251 people sick and put 229 into hospitals, said Dr. Robert Tauxe of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Two elderly men died of unrelated conditions while infected with the strain, the CDC added.
Last Thursday, U.S. regulators lifted a warning on tomatoes not because tomatoes have been cleared from suspicion, but because any that could have been contaminated would have spoiled and been discarded by that time.
The last reported case of Salmonella stpaul was on July 4, Tauxe said, but the outbreak is considered to be ongoing.
The FDA said inspectors were in Mexico searching for a possible source of the contamination. It is not clear whether the small McAllen, Texas facility could be the source of the entire outbreak, which has sickened people in 43 states, Washington D.C. and Canada.
MEXICO TO INVESTIGATE
“This is primarily just a distribution point. Our understanding is they may do some sorting of the products there,” said Steve Solomon, deputy director of the Office of Regional Operations at FDA.
Mexican agriculture ministry spokesman Marco Antonio Sifuentes said Mexico was opening an investigation into the case. Mexico maintains the strain of bacteria that sickened people in the United States has never been found in Mexico.
The Texas firm also distributes tomatillos, a small, green, husked tomato-like fruit.
Acheson said the facility was targeted for testing after the FDA traced one cluster of illness. “We are working back from a population of patients who got sick in a single geographic area that ate in a single place,” he said.
“We asked where peppers linked to that cluster came from.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Foresty Committee, said the FDA needs better techniques for tracing food to its source.
“This is far too long for an outbreak to spread unresolved and it is unacceptable for public health, farmers and the food and produce industry,” Harkin said in a statement.
Acheson said the investigation of this outbreak is the most complex he has ever worked on.
Food safety experts say it has been especially difficult because people had trouble recalling what they had eaten before they became ill, and the products indicated, such as fresh tomatoes and peppers, had all been discarded by the time inspectors could follow up.
Salmonella poisoning, which causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps is very common, with 40,000 cases and 400 deaths each year in the United States alone.
With additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in Mexico City
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