July 23, 2008

Two Regional Grocers Pull Fresh Jalapeno Peppers Off the Shelves

By Jim Downing, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

Jul. 22--Two of the Sacramento region's top four grocers have pulled fresh jalapeno peppers from their shelves in response to Monday's nationwide warning about potential salmonella contamination.

Safeway and Save Mart supermarkets have removed the peppers, while Raley's and Wal-Mart stores have not. Representatives from Raley's and Wal-Mart said the companies feel confident their jalapenos are not linked to the outbreak.

All jalapenos in Raley's stores today are grown in California, spokeswoman Amy Johnston said. The Food and Drug Administration's investigation points to a Mexican pepper farm and a Texas produce warehouse, though the agency hasn't ruled out other sources of the bacteria blamed for 1,256 reported illnesses in 43 states.

Nearly all of Save Mart's jalapenos are grown in California as well. But the company decided early Tuesday to be cautious and stop selling the peppers, said spokeswoman Alicia Rockwell.

Canned salsas and canned or pickled peppers are not included in the FDA warning. Such warnings are not binding, but supermarkets and restaurants often treat them like recalls. A food retailer can be liable for substantial damages for selling a tainted item, even if it was contaminated earlier in the supply chain -- at a farm or packinghouse, for instance.

While the finding of the tainted pepper in Texas marks a breakthrough in the FDA's investigation, the origins of the outbreak remain murky. The agency can't say whether the pepper was contaminated on the farm in Mexico, in the packinghouse in Texas or somewhere in between. It also hasn't determined where all the peppers grown on the farm that supplied the Texas packer were shipped.

Those uncertainties led the agency to urge all consumers nationwide to avoid fresh jalapenos.

After the FDA linked the same outbreak to fresh tomatoes in June, supermarkets, restaurants and distributors dumped the fruit by the crate. Evidence later pointed to hot peppers.


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