July 8, 2008
Salmonella Probe Focuses on Peppers
BRADENTON, Fla. _ Main ingredients in fresh salsa such as jalapeno, cilantro and Serrano peppers have become the lead suspects in a salmonella outbreak initially blamed on certain types of raw tomatoes.
When the investigation began more than two months ago, the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory, warning consumers against eating raw red plum, red Roma and round red tomatoes unless they were grown and harvested in states that appeared on a safe-to-eat list.
But as the investigation went on and consumers continued to become ill, investigators began to look elsewhere. The CDC and FDA expanded the investigation last week to include foods commonly served with tomatoes after noting clusters of people who became ill from eating at restaurants in Texas and other states.
Since mid-April, almost 1,000 people in 40 states have been infected with salmonella poisoning, according to the CDC. Cases highly concentrated in Texas, New Mexico and Illinois account for more than half of those reported in the outbreak.
Fresh salsa made with jalapeno, cilantro and Serrano peppers, rather than processed or canned salsas, are under scrutiny for the cause of the outbreak, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Liz Compton, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture, also heard that investigators were looking at the various peppers, but have not ruled out tomatoes.
Frustration, especially for tomato growers, has mounted as the investigation has cost the industry millions of dollars. The investigation stalled shipments and harvesting, causing the fruit to go bad and customers to lose confidence in tomatoes.
Now that the lead is getting hotter for other types of produce, growers want to restore their reputation for producing a safe product.
"By expanding this investigation, wherever they look, we hope they quickly find the source and solve this," Compton said.
To people in the tomato industry, the damage has already been done.
Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Tomato Growers Exchange, said the new findings do not erase the loss of public confidence in tomatoes, nor does it undo the financial loss the industry suffered. Should the blame fall on peppers rather than tomatoes, it would be reasonable to expect financial restitution from the government, he said.
"Why they didn't suspect other items and automatically went to the assumption it was tomatoes was unfortunate," he said. "If that is, in fact, the result of the outcome, we'd be looking to the government to produce dollars to reaffirm public confidence and make the industry whole for the damage they caused."
How soon, or if, the industry will bounce back completely, is debatable, Brown said.
"The quicker we get this behind us, the quicker the public will start to return to tomato consumption," he said. "The public diet will improve and the industry will improve as soon as they say it's not tomatoes."
Local growers have remained focused on finding the source of the outbreak and putting into place a system to prevent the government from casting blame on an industry without proof.
Bob Spencer of West Coast Tomato said growers have believed all along that the cause of the outbreak was something other than fresh tomatoes from Florida. In 2007, Florida became the first state to implement a mandatory food safety program aimed at ensuring a safe product.
"We can only hope the FDA can learn from this mistake and change their practices and not try to cover up what has happened here to protect their reputation," Spencer said. "They made a mistake, and hopefully they'll be big enough to admit it."
In the last few days, Spencer said information has circulated about various peppers as the cause of the outbreak, but he was leery of repeating it.
"You have to be careful about what you start hearing," he said. "You don't know what's a rumor and what's fact. The theme from this whole process is that American-grown produce is safe, and the consumer needs to demand it," Spencer said.
While CNN has reported that U.S. investigators are focusing on imports from Mexico and plan Monday to stop shipments on the produce, the FDA and CDC had not issued an advisory to pull the produce from the shelves as of Saturday.
Local restaurants have continued to serve salsa by customer demand.
"We're just pretty much waiting out the situation. You can't do much about it," said Jose Pallares, manager of Acapulco Mexican Restaurant, which includes fresh jalapeno and cilantro in its salsa.
The tomato advisory had people frustrated that salsa was no longer being served.
"When there was the whole tomato scare, we weren't selling our salsa and people were actually ticked off about it," Pallares said.
Customer reaction was the same at Moe's Southwest Grill on University Parkway, said assistant manager Shane Doyle.
Moe's corporate office pulled tomatoes as soon as the FDA and CDC issued the advisory and even waited 10 days after Florida was cleared.
"Every 15 minutes someone's like, 'You don't have pico, you don't have salsa?' Yeah, it was bad," he said.
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