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FDA Expands Pepper Warning in Salmonella Outbreak

Second tainted sample found at another farm in Mexico; serrano and jalapeno peppers from that country are now suspect

THURSDAY, July 31 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. health officials have widened their warning on peppers from Mexico after another salmonella-tainted sample, along with tainted irrigation water, was found at a second farm.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration now advises consumers to avoid all raw serrano peppers from Mexico, along with raw jalapenos from that country and all the foods that contain them, the agency announced late Wednesday night.

"Laboratory testing has confirmed that both a sample of serrano pepper and a sample of irrigation water collected by agency investigators on a farm in the state of Nuevo Leon, Mexico, contain Salmonella saintpaul with the same genetic fingerprint as the strain of bacteria that is causing the current outbreak in the United States," the agency said in a news release.

A contaminated jalapeno pepper had been identified two weeks ago at another Mexican farm in a different part of the country, which turned the months-long search for a source of the nationwide outbreak away from fresh tomatoes.

Meanwhile, the latest victim count across the United States and Canada, as of Wednesday, stood at 1,319 , with at least 225 people requiring hospitalization, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The discovery of the contaminated serrano pepper and tainted irrigation water led Lonnie King, the chief of the CDC's center for foodborne illnesses, to tell the Associated Press on Wednesday, "We have a smoking gun, it appears."

But health officials cautioned that the investigation wasn't over and that contamination of several different types of produce was still possible.

The FDA was still analyzing samples taken from many farms in Mexico, the agency's statement said.

Mexico's Agriculture Department, according to AP, disputed the FDA's conclusion that the source of the salmonella outbreak had been found in the Nuevo Leon farm's irrigation water.

In a statement released Wednesday to the AP, Mexican agriculture officials said, "The farm unit in question ended its harvest more than a month ago, so the sample they say they have lacks scientific validity." The statement added that the sample "was taken recently from a tank holding rain water that was not used in production."

Also on Wednesday, U.S. health officials defended their focus on fresh tomatoes at a congressional hearing, saying early signs clearly implicated that produce.

Fresh tomatoes had been the suspected source of the outbreak that began in April. But three weeks ago, U.S. health officials cleared the current crop for consumers. Two weeks ago, they found the first tainted pepper, and then they narrowed the source of contamination to crops in Mexico, not the United States.

According to the CDC, the breakdown by state of ill people shows: Alabama (3), Arkansas (21), Arizona (56), California (11), Colorado (16), Connecticut (5), Florida (4), Georgia (40), Idaho (6), Illinois (116), Indiana (20), Iowa (2), Kansas (21), Kentucky (2), Louisiana (2), Maine (1), Maryland (38), Massachusetts (29), Michigan (26), Minnesota (22), Mississippi (2), Missouri (20), Montana (1), New Hampshire (5), Nevada (13), New Jersey (16), New Mexico (106), New York (39), North Carolina (28), Ohio (10), Oklahoma (25), Oregon (11), Pennsylvania (13), Rhode Island (3), South Carolina (2), Tennessee (10), Texas (502), Utah (2), Virginia (31), Vermont (2), Washington (17), West Virginia (1), Wisconsin (13), and the District of Columbia (1). Five ill persons are from Canada; four appear to have been infected while traveling in the United States, and one individual remains under investigation.

Salmonella is a bacteria that can cause bloody diarrhea in humans. Some 40,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported in the United States each year, although the CDC estimates that because milder cases aren't diagnosed or reported, the actual number of infections may be 30 or more times greater. Approximately 600 people die each year after being infected.

However, the strain of Salmonella saintpaul had been previously considered rare. In 2007, according to the CDC, there were only six people infected in the country during April through June.

More information

Visit the FDA for more on the salmonella outbreak.

SOURCES: July 30, 2008, news release, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; July 25, 2008, news release, FDA; Associated Press; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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