July 14, 2008

Salmonella Fears Take Some Zing Out of Pepper Biz

By Julie Schmit

Imports of jalapeno peppers from Mexico have slowed amid government testing for salmonella, and importers say shortages are likely if the bottleneck continues.

"If this goes on for two more weeks, there's a strong likelihood you won't get a jalapeno in your burrito," says Will Steele, CEO of a leading pepper importer, Frontera Produce of Edinburg, Texas.

Frontera is still shipping peppers, but some importers have stopped, saying the tests take so long that peppers rot in the warehouse. Wholesale prices have doubled as grocers and restaurants pursue limited supplies from Southeastern growers.

"We want to continue to serve our customers but we cannot," says Raul Cano, co-owner of Grande Produce in Hidalgo, Texas. He says the company has temporarily stopped importing Mexican jalapenos.

Hot peppers are suspected sources of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened 1,090 people in the USA.

The Food and Drug Administration last week advised high-risk consumers, such as the young and old, to avoid fresh jalapeno and serrano peppers. The FDA first linked the outbreak in June to some types of raw tomatoes, which are still suspects.

Testing imported peppers for salmonella can take days.

Frontera destroyed a $25,000 truckload of Mexican jalapenos that tests cleared after a 10-day wait. By then the peppers were ruined, Steele says.

Steele plans to keep shipping in hopes that the FDA clears product faster as clean test results stack up.

Like Grande Produce, Ispe Produce in McAllen, Texas, has curtailed shipments. It normally imports two trucks of peppers and cilantro a day. The government warnings don't include cilantro, but it has been mentioned as a potential concern.

Ispe owner Felipe Aylala says wholesale jalapeno prices jumped from $13 a case a week ago to $21. Cilantro prices haven't changed because California has ample supplies, he says.

Smaller shipments from Mexico to the U.S. may be offset by lowered demand. Some restaurants, including Rosa Mexicano with seven East Coast locations, have pulled fresh jalapenos and serrano peppers and cilantro from food items. Retailers, including Wegmans, Whole Foods Market and Kroger, have put up signs to alert consumers to FDA warnings.

The FDA's tomato warning, first issued in early June, has depressed tomato sales. Fresh tomato sales at 15,000 supermarkets nationwide were down 17% by volume for the four weeks ending June 28 vs. a year ago, says data from the Perishables Group. In dollar sales, they were down 5.4%.

Image Courtesy Wikimedia


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