July 30, 2008

Don’t Sweat It, Jalapeo Fans — As Long As Peppers Are Domestic

By Amanda Schoenberg Journal Staff Writer

As the government connects the dots between raw jalapeo peppers and a salmonella outbreak that has sickened nearly 1,300 people, New Mexico cooks may worry about that batch of homemade salsa in the refrigerator.

But New Mexico growers and consumers can breathe easier after the Food and Drug Administration confirmed last week that no domestic peppers have been linked to the bacteria scare. The salmonella contamination is limited to jalapeos grown in Mexico, according to the FDA.

New Mexico's jalapeo crop has not been harvested this year. Of the jalapeos that will be harvested, about 95 percent head straight to processors and never land on grocery shelves, according to the New Mexico Chile Association.

Doug Rains, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, said locals should feel safe buying jalapeo peppers as long as they do not come from Mexico. To alleviate lingering worries about kitchen contamination, the New Mexico Chile Association recommends keeping produce separate from other food and thoroughly washing and cooking peppers at temperatures higher than 160 degrees, which kills salmonella bacteria. When dining out, the FDA recommends asking where peppers are from before chowing down.

The FDA first warned of a possible link between raw tomatoes and salmonella in April, then connected peppers to the bacteria in June. Last week, the FDA traced the salmonella strain to a Mexican-grown jalapeo in Texas.

As a result, several Albuquerque markets say they no longer sell Mexicangrown jalapeos. At Smith's on Coors Boulevard NW, produce department manager Andrew Sanchez said the store has not sold Mexican jalapeo peppers at all this season. According to David Giedd, produce department team leader at La Montaita Coop on Central Avenue SE, the Nob Hill market sells only Californiagrown jalapeos.

If jalapeos of any variety still seem scary, local cooks can try substituting serrano or yellow chile peppers, both of which could be used to make salsa and guacamole instead of jalapeo peppers, Giedd said.

As for canned, pickled and cooked jalapeos, the FDA said consumers should not be concerned. Jill Levin, owner of Jilli Pepper in Albuquerque, said pepper processing should alleviate doubts. To make her salsas, Levin roasts peppers, freezes them and adds them to a vat where they are cooked to 190 degrees.

"We process our salsas, so anything that could be alive in there is dead," she said. "We cook the heck out of it."

For cooks still craving hot jalapeos, Levin advocates buying locally or growing peppers at home.

"I'd know where they came from, that's the key," she said.

(c) 2008 Albuquerque Journal. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.