By Stacey Eidson, The Bradenton Herald, Fla.
Jul. 22–Just days after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced tomatoes were safe to enjoy again, federal health officials are now warning consumers not to eat fresh jalapeno peppers.
A jalapeno pepper from a small Texas-based produce distribution center tested positive as a “genetic match” to the particular salmonella strain, called Saintpaul, associated with the current nationwide outbreak, according to the FDA.
The company, Agricola Zaragoza Inc. of McAllen, Texas, has voluntarily recalled all of its jalapeno peppers, which originated from a farm in Mexico.
But the connection between the peppers tested in Texas and the largest outbreak of food-borne illness on record in the past decade was enough for the FDA to tell consumers to avoid eating fresh jalapenos.
“Currently, the warning is nationwide for all fresh jalapenos and products made from fresh jalapenos. That does not include processed products,” Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods for the FDA, said during Monday’s news conference. “The reason for that is, we do not know the exact source of this contamination.”
Acheson described the discovery at the Texas distribution center as a “huge break” in the nationwide salmonella investigation.
To date, more than 1,200 cases in 43 states have been reported in the salmonella outbreak that began in mid-April, according to Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control.
There have been two associated deaths and approximately 229 people hospitalized as a result of the salmonella contamination, according to the CDC.
Boni Caro, one of the owners of mi Pueblo restaurants in Manatee and Sarasota counties, said his businesses will avoid using any fresh jalapenos until the FDA lifts its warning.
“Right now, unfortunately, we have to use canned jalapenos to make our salsa,” Caro said. “It is hard for us because we are a Mexican restaurant, but it is not going to stop business. We are just waiting to see what happens.”
Caro said it is frustrating because just a few weeks ago the restaurants had to avoid using certain tomatoes because of the FDA’s previous warning.
“The same thing happened when the tomato scare was going on,” Caro said. “And we proudly use tomatoes from Florida but we had to stop using tomatoes for a couple of weeks just until everything got cleared up. I just hope they will figure it out pretty soon.”
Shannon Patten, a spokeswoman for Publix, said she received a statement from the FDA late Monday saying the grocery chain is not affected by the pepper recall. But the federal government is still advising consumers to avoid eating any fresh jalapenos.
The FDA intends to narrow its investigation of jalapenos as quickly as possible, but the public’s safety must be the top priority, Acheson said.
“This is not about punishing anybody,” he said. “It’s about protecting public health.”
Liz Compton, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture, said the state’s tomato industry is still reeling from the FDA’s expired warning about tomatoes.
“Fortunately, we don’t have a large jalapeno industry that will be impacted by this,” she said. “And certainly we are glad that they found a positive sample that might help find the exact source because tomato growers are not rebounding right now. There are still concerns in the public.”
“We would certainly be glad if they can figure this out and be able to declare that tomatoes were never involved,” she added. “Because there is still a dark cloud over tomatoes.”
Gary Reeder, a tomato grower with West Coast Tomato, said Florida tomatoes should have never been linked to the salmonella outbreak.
“I’m very angry that the FDA has caused all these problems for us with no substantiation from Day 1,” Reeder said. “They still have not found one case of salmonella poisoning in any tomatoes coming from Florida. Not one.”
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