The tomatoes-peppers-cilantro-? Salmonella story is starting to break, although which way is hard to say at this moment. Beginning about 3 pm yesterday afternoon newswire stories began to report that the FDA had found a single jalapeno pepper in a small distribution center in McAllen, Texas, contaminated with the same uncommon Salmonella serovar (S. stpaul) implicated in a large outbreak that has infected over 1200 people in 43 states. This is the first time any food item has turned up positive for this Salmonella strain in the 14 weeks federal and state authorities have been trying to nail down the source of the infection. So this is significant progress, although it is tempered by the fact that the comparison is no progress. At this point, however, we don’t know exactly what it means:
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.
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.
“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. (Maggie Fox, Reuters)
As of 10 pm EDST last night all the major newswires had the story, but only Maggie Fox at Reuters had the key piece of information:
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.”
So kudos to Maggie Fox (a consistently excellent health and science reporter). And thumbs down to cable network MSNBC, whose newsanchor Milissa Rehberger has been running “newsbreaks” all evening saying the Salmonella outbreak has finally been traced to “a single jalapeno pepper,” as if the contaminated pepper were responsible for the entire outbreak. Talk about really, really bad news writing, that’s some of the worst we’ve seen in a long time.
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, tomoatoes 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. The FDA acknowledges all these uncertainties. I suppose we should add one more caveat: at this point this could still be a laboratory error, that is, a contamination with the incriminated strain. I doubt it, but at this point nothing would surprise me. This has not been the smoothest outbreak investigation I’ve ever seen. Still, the stated link to a single cluster adds some weight to the finding.
Maybe by the time you read this we’ll know more. But I doubt it. So stay tuned as this unfolds. In slow motion.