Thursday, July 10, 2008
Over 1000 cases of illness have now been identified in a foodborne salmonellosis outbreak that began in mid-April 2008 in the United States.
As of July 8, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported 1013 confirmed infections throughout the United States, along with four cases in Canada. 203 hospitalizations have been linked to the outbreak. It has caused at least one death, and it may have been a contributing factor in another. The pathogen responsible is the rare Saintpaul strain of Salmonella enterica.
Nearly half of the reported illnesses were in Texas and New Mexico. According to unnamed sources close to the investigation, most illness clusters in the outbreak involve Mexican restaurants. Illness clusters in the hard hit state of Illinois were publicly identified by local health departments as involving three Mexican restaurants.
The CDC is in the process of investigating the outbreak and trying to identify the contamination’s point of origin. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently suspects that the contaminated food product is an ingredient in fresh salsa, such as fresh jalapeño pepper, fresh serrano pepper, fresh cilantro, or certain types of raw tomato.
Some produce industry insiders doubt that fresh produce is to blame for the outbreak. They point to the absence of Salmonella on all of the tested produce samples to date, as well as divergent results from produce tracebacks. They also say that the extended time frame of new sicknesses makes it unlikely that either raw tomatoes or fresh jalapeños, the government’s two main suspects, could be responsible. Will Steele, President and CEO of Frontera Produce, said that “the outbreak is probably related to processed goods and they’re looking in the wrong closets.”
Steele’s Texas based company has been forced to hold shipments of fresh jalapeño peppers after loads of produce were repeatedly flagged by the FDA for testing. Although independent testing of both loads showed no sign of Salmonella, the peppers are still on hold until the FDA finishes its own testing of the second load flagged on July 1st. “There are still no results,” Steele says. “The salability of that produce in two to three days is gone. We ceased harvesting. There is no sense in bringing in more product and having it rot.”
Steele, like others in the produce industry, believes that the FDA should be focusing on processed produce instead of fresh produce. “Methodology is backward,” he says. “FDA is reaching for answers. You can’t tie jalapeño pepper shipped on June 30 back to April 10.”
Still, the FDA and the CDC consider testing of fresh jalapeños and other fresh produce a high priority. The CDC writes that “the accumulated data from all investigations indicate that jalapeño peppers caused some illnesses.”
The FDA is cautioning that people who would be in the most danger if infected with Salmonella (infants, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems) should avoid eating the suspected types of produce listed on their website.