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FDA Clears U.S. Hot Peppers in Salmonella Outbreak

FRIDAY July 25, 2008 -- Almost a week after uncovering the first big clue in the salmonella outbreak mystery, a top U.S. health official said Friday that tainted jalapeno peppers had been definitively traced to a farm in Mexico.

Dr. David Acheson, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's associate commissioner for foods, gave the all-clear to jalapeno and serrano peppers grown in the United States, but warned consumers to avoid any grown in Mexico and also avoid salsas and sauces that are made with them, according to the Associated Press.

A sample of a Mexican-grown jalapeno tainted with Salmonella saintpaul was found at a packing plant in Mcallen, Texas, Acheson had announced at a mid-afternoon teleconference Monday.

It was the first break in a months-long search for the produce that produced bacteria that so far has sickened 1,294 people in the United States and Canada. And it turned the consumer eye away from raw tomatoes, which had been suspected as the source since the outbreak started in April.

"While this one sample doesn't give us the whole story, this genetic match is a very important break in the case," Acheson said at the time. "This will ultimately, hopefully, allow us to pinpoint the source of the contamination, which has caused the outbreak."

On Friday, Acheson told the AP that clusters of illnesses around the United States all appeared to trace back to Mexican jalapenos.

"Domestically grown products are not tracing back at all to the outbreak," he told the AP. "On Monday, we didn't know exactly where they all were coming from. Today, we're certain these are coming from Mexico."

Acheson added that not all the peppers went through Agricola Zaragoza Inc., the McAllen, Texas, packing plant where the tainted sample was found.

And he said that FDA inspectors were on site at the Mexican farm where the tainted pepper came from.

Raw jalapeno peppers are often used in the preparation of salsa, pico de gallo and other dishes.

When the outbreak began in April, early signs pointed to raw tomatoes -- particularly raw round, red tomatoes, plum or Roma tomatoes -- as the likely source of contamination. But the FDA lifted its warning on tomatoes last week because it was highly unlikely that any tomatoes that were on the market at the start of the outbreak remain on the market.

According to the CDC, people stricken during the outbreak have ranged in age from under 1 to 99 years old, and 50 percent are female. The rate of illness has been highest among those 20 to 29 years old; it is lowest among adolescents 10 to 19 years old and people over 80.

According to the CDC's latest count as of July 25, the breakdown by state of ill people shows: Alabama (3), Arkansas (19), Arizona (56), California (9), Colorado (16), Connecticut (5), Florida (3), Georgia (40), Idaho (6), Illinois (115), Indiana (20), Iowa (2), Kansas (20), Kentucky (2), Louisiana (2), Maine (1), Maryland (37), Massachusetts (29), Michigan (25), Minnesota (22), Mississippi (2), Missouri (20), Montana (1), New Hampshire (5), Nevada (13), New Jersey (14), New Mexico (106), New York (39), North Carolina (23), Ohio (10), Oklahoma (25), Oregon (11), Pennsylvania (12), Rhode Island (3), South Carolina (2), Tennessee (9), Texas (495), 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.

Posted: July 2008


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