July 29, 2008

Jalapeno Sales Not Hot

By Ramon Renteria, El Paso Times, Texas

Jul. 29--SAN ELIZARIO -- Rodolfo Stewart recently stopped at Baldo's Produce roadside stand along Socorro Road to stock up on fruit and vegetables.

This day, Stewart bypassed the crate containing jalapeno peppers.

"I don't buy the jalapeno that much anymore because it's been advertised that it's making people sick," Stewart said.

Stewart, a retired Asarco supervisor from the Lower Valley, is among El Paso-area consumers, retailers, wholesalers and restaurants taking precautions since the Food and Drug Administration last week identified a jalapeno contaminated with the same strain of salmonella that has sickened 1,237 people in 43 states, the District of Columbia and Canada.

The contaminated pepper was grown in Mexico and found at a packing company in McAllen, near the Mexican border.

The news is affecting jalapeno sales in El Paso, although most retailers and wholesalers say produce being sold locally is safe to eat. Food safety experts recommend boiling or cooking jalapenos to kill any bacteria.

At Baldo's Produce, seller Graciela Perales lamented that jalapenos -- a staple ingredient in salsas and other Mexican cuisine -- are still in demand but that some warehouses are withholding them from the market until health authorities pinpoint the actual source of the latest salmonella scare.

Just a few weeks ago, El Paso wholesale and retail produce vendors lost thousands of dollars in sales when the federal government suspected tomatoes were contaminated. Cilantro, another

product used in popular Mexican dishes, also has been mentioned as a possible culprit.

"A majority of people want jala penos, but obviously if the warehouses don't sell them to us, there has to be a reason," Perales said. "The bigger stores still sell jalapenos, but the price has tripled."

The price of jalapenos around El Paso now ranges from $1 to $1.79 a pound. Two weeks ago, two pounds of jalapenos sold for $1 at some stores.

Perales isn't concerned her customers will boycott jala penos anytime soon.

"Like they say, we're Mexican and Mexicans aren't afraid of anything," Perales said.

Salmonella bacteria can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever. Serious infections can kill people, especially those with weak immune systems.

At JR Produce on Alameda, Lower Valley resident Norma Delgado shopped for jala penos with sons Andrew, 3, and Abraham, 12, while Mexican ranchera music played on loudspeakers.

Delgado has not yet surrendered to the so-called tainted jalapeno scare.

"First they said the tomato was tainted," Delgado said. "Now the jalapeno?"

Melida Carrasco, another customer from East El Paso, is still buying the spicy peppers. She never eats raw chiles but worries she may have to reconsider buying jalapenos.

"Nothing has happened to us so far, but maybe I'll give it up for a while," Carrasco said.

Oscar Martinez, a manager at JR Produce, suspects jala peno prices may go up in some stores around El Paso if the product becomes scarce.

"Thank God, there is no problem in El Paso. We get all our produce from local distributors," Martinez said. "The consumer hasn't complained yet."

The Taco Tote restaurant on Montana temporarily stopped using jalapenos in its salsas as a precaution and did not experience a customer backlash.

"These are temporary measures to make sure our customers don't get sick," assistant manager Luis Mota said.

Raw jalapenos are typically used in popular salsas such as pico de gallo.

The recent outbreak of foodborne illness prompted New Mexico State University to schedule food safety workshops for produce growers in Capitan, Silver City and Las Cruces this week.

Nancy Flores, an NMSU Extension food technology specialist, is conducting the program. She suggests basic hygiene among farm workers and good crop management, such as evaluating water sources, can help prevent contaminated produce problems.

"Fresh produce should always be washed before use and currently peppers should be cooked thoroughly until we know more from the FDA on this latest outbreak," she said.

Some wholesalers and retailers are optimistic the chile harvest in Southern New Mexico in mid-August should help minimize any concerns about contaminated jala penos.

"We only have a couple of very small jalapeno growers in Southern New Mexico," said Doug Rains, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture in Las Cruces. "There hasn't been a jalapeno harvested yet, so we can't contribute to the outbreak."

Victor's Produce in El Paso, a wholesale and retail outlet on Alameda, recently rejected 240 cases of jalapenos from Mexico.

"I don't want the risk of having over $1,000 go to waste," said Victor Trujillo Jr., who helps his father run the 50-year-old family business.

The warehouse supplies El Paso restaurants, schools and jails and already has had some of its jalapenos returned because of fears that the product may be contaminated. The company took a big financial hit when tomatoes were suspected of being contaminated with salmonella.

"Since about three days ago, people started asking if the jalapeno isn't infected. They're concerned," Trujillo said. "Hopefully, they'll find the source and we'll get back on track."

Ramon Renteria may be reached at [email protected];546-6146.

Prevention tips Follow these guidelines to help prevent foodborne illness: --Growers should have farm workers wash off boots or shoes before entering fields, wash their hands after using the bathroom and before harvesting products.

--Farmers also should wash bins before harvesting their products.

--Isolate animals from land where crops are grown.

--Growers should evaluate their source of water, the source of seed and whether animals are entering the field.

--Consumers should wash their hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling food and after using the bathroom, changing diapers and handling pets.

--Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry and seafood.

--Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry or seafood.

--If you're concerned about where your food is grown, shop at local farmers markets or ask for locally grown produce at your grocery store. Source: New Mexico State University; United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service.


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