Peppered with Salmonella?

Revere once again is the voice of reason regarding latest developments in Tomatogate (e.g., the ongoing outbreak of Salmonella, serovar Saintpaul). Has the source been identified?

For those of you who many not have been following this closely, the outbreak has now hit almost every state, with over 1200 confirmed cases identified since April and more than 200 hospitalizations. Though the outbreak was initially associated with tomatoes, investigators were unable to link tomatoes to the specific strain–a relatively rare one–and advice to consumers to avoid varieties of tomatoes didn’t put an end to the new cases. The potential foods implicated widened to include cilantro and pepper varieties in addition to tomatoes.

Now comes a report that they’ve finally found a match to the Salmonella outbreak strain–in a jalapeno pepper originating in Mexico:

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.

While this is what could be called “a break in the case,” as Revere notes, this is really only the beginning (contrary to some really poor reporting on the topic).

What do we know at this point? Not that much. This is a small distribution center and we don’t know where the pepper got the Salmonella. Maybe it was on the farm in Mexico or somewhere between the farm and the warehouse or in the warehouse itself. We don’t know if peppers are the only contaminated food item — for example, tomatoes or cilantro or other kinds of peppers. We don’t know if other distribution facilities might also have contaminated food items. Most importantly we don’t know how the Salmonella got to 43 states. It’s not likely from this one small facility.

This has been one helluva outbreak, and difficult to trace for a number of reasons. Unlike the 2006 spinach outbreak, we don’t have bags with lot codes on them to trace–investigators have been searching fresh produce but there are several issues with that: one, that it’s not labeled as to origin, and two, that it spoils fairly rapidly (in comparison to ground beef or even bagged vegetables, for example). So it’s been an understandably tough outbreak to get a handle on, and has highlighted the difficulties faced when trying to determine the source of outbreaks such as this one:

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.

Will there be additional breaks? Will we ever really know what’s happened here, or will the “smoking jalapeno,” as its been called, be a dead end? It’s hard to say for now, but it certainly has served to highlight once again how far we have to go when it comes to source tracing for something this complex.


  1. #1 apy
    July 24, 2008

    Good thing I like to prove how manly I am and only go for the habaneros, nothing can live on those!

  2. #2 Phoenix Woman
    July 24, 2008

    Yet another argument for eating locally.

  3. #3 Rogue Epidemiologist
    July 25, 2008

    Local or flown in from Fiji, it doesn’t matter where you get your crops if the farm labourers are crapping in the fields. How about strongly discouraging crapping in the fields?

  4. #4 Jeb, FCD
    July 25, 2008

    @Rogue Epidemiologist:

    Salmonella is not native in humans. If workers are crapping in the fields, one would expect some variant of E. coli. Or, am I wrong?

    I suspect chicken poop was used as a fertilizer. Since jalapenos are used raw in salsa, the Salmonella spp. wouldn’t be killed.

  5. #5 KeithB
    July 29, 2008

    You might have been kidding, but it appears that chiles are only hot to mammals:

    Birds have no problem with them. In fact, I think a neat scene in a future Jurassic Park type movie would be for the hero to try pepper spray on the T. Rex and while the spray startles it for a second, there is no lasting effect and the beast comes right back at them.

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