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Salmonella Illnesses Now Largest Foodborne Outbreak in U.S. History

Infection toll at 1,017; health officials add hot peppers and cilantro as suspect foods, along with tomatoes

WEDNESDAY, July 9 (HealthDay News) -- The number of people sickened in the ongoing salmonella outbreak has now surpassed 1,000, and while certain types of tomatoes remain the suspected cause, U.S. health officials on Wednesday added hot peppers and cilantro as potential suspects as well.

"We continue to get new reported cases every day," Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the division of foodborne, bacterial and mycotic diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a late-afternoon teleconference. "This is the largest food-borne outbreak in the United States."

Since the outbreak began in April, 1,017 people in 41 states, the District of Columbia and Canada have fallen ill, and at least 203 people have been hospitalized. One death -- a Texas man in his 80s -- has been associated with the outbreak. Also, a man in his 60s who died in Texas from cancer had a Salmonella Saintpaul infection at the time of his death, the CDC reported Wednesday on its Web site.

In addition, according to the CDC, 300 of those people became ill after June 1.

An initial investigation of the outbreak, in New Mexico and Texas, suggested raw tomatoes as the likely source of the contamination. But a larger, nationwide study comparing persons who were ill in June found that those who were sickened were likely to have recently eaten raw tomatoes, as well as fresh jalapeno and serrano peppers, and fresh cilantro. These foods are typically consumed together, the CDC said.

Recently, many clusters of illnesses have been identified involving people who had eaten in restaurants. In one cluster, illnesses were linked to consumption of an item containing fresh tomatoes and fresh jalapeno peppers. In another two clusters, illnesses were linked to a food item containing fresh jalapeno peppers, leading federal officials to believe that jalapeno peppers caused some of the reported illnesses, the CDC said.

However, "at this we have not found any samples of tomatoes or peppers positive for Salmonella Saintpaul," Steve Sundlof, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told reporters at the teleconference.

Tauxe added, "Neither tomatoes nor jalapenos explain the entire outbreak at this point. We're presuming that both of them cause illness."

When it comes to tomatoes, officials said the advice to consumers remains the same: Avoid raw red plum, red Roma, round red tomatoes, and products containing these raw tomatoes.

On Wednesday, Tauxe added that people at risk of infection, including infants and elderly people, should avoid eating will jalapeno peppers.

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 are not 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 three people infected in the country during April through June.

More information

Visit the CDC for more on the salmonella outbreak.

SOURCES: July 9, 2008, teleconference with David Acheson, M.D., associate commissioner for foods, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Robert Tauxe, M.D., deputy director, foodborne, bacterial and mycotic diseases division, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Steve Sundlof, director, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, FDA

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