Four months after an outbreak of salmonella hospitalized hundreds, forced groceries to toss out tomatoes and peppers by the thousands, infuriated fruit and vegetable growers and puzzled consumers, health authorities said Thursday that the epidemic was about over.
Officials said the number of cases from the nation's largest epidemic of food-borne illness had slid to non-outbreak levels in early August and there had been no clusters of victims since early July.
The produce industry and its customers felt a prolonged -- and often crippling -- burden lift.
"Unquestionably, we're relieved," said Tom Nassif, chief executive of the Irvine-based Western Growers Assn., whose members cultivate about half of the nation's produce. "But we don't want this thing swept under the rug. We still have a lot of people out there hurting."
The industry response is estimated to have cost between $130 million and $250 million, and workers who lost jobs and growers who planted a smaller crop this year will continue to feel the aftershocks.
Several produce executives accused the Food and Drug Administration of running a lengthy, uncertain investigation that shifted suspicion from tomatoes to jalapeno and serrano peppers, shattering consumer confidence.
Infections were first reported in mid-April, leading the FDA to issue a warning against certain tomatoes in early June. By the time the advisory was lifted in mid-July, many retailers had removed all tomatoes from shelves.
Weeks later, the FDA fingered Mexican jalapeno peppers after contaminated samples were found in a victim's home and a Texas distribution center. Soon after, the agency said it discovered salmonella in a serrano pepper and irrigation water on a Mexican farm. Mexican officials said tests by their investigators cleared the farm as the source.
American produce executives griped that at the beginning of the investigation health officials zeroed in too quickly on domestic tomatoes and refused to consider other possible sources. The FDA also shunned offers by produce producers to supply information that could have helped narrow the trace-back, they said.
A bill introduced in July by Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.) asks the Department of Agriculture to compensate tomato growers and packers nationwide for $100 million in losses relating to the outbreak.
"Everybody agrees that this went on way too long and was unfocused, and that the public's health was not served," said Lisa Lochridge, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Assn.
Still, in a conference call with reporters Thursday, federal health officials suggested that there would be no tidy finale to the outbreak drama.
Some facts were straightforward: The outbreak sickened 1,442 people and caused at least 286 hospitalizations and possibly two deaths.
But even though investigators found no tomatoes that tested positive for salmonella, Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said tomatoes might still have been a carrier at the start of the outbreak.
Officials also said they could not be sure they had the final or only origin of the outbreak.
And although the FDA on Thursday lifted the warning for consumers to avoid fresh peppers from Mexico, officials said they could not exclude the possibility that the bacteria could have an encore in the U.S.
"None of us can give a cast-iron guarantee that Salmonella Saintpaul won't reemerge," said David Acheson, the FDA's food safety chief.
Industry executives and health officials said they were trying to look ahead and use this outbreak to anticipate or prevent the next.
Acheson said government and industry should improve technology to better detect pathogens and promote electronic product tracking. An estimated 30 to 40 pieces of legislation have been introduced, industry executives said, dealing with issues including food safety programs, traceability and research funding.
"We're all trying to take something positive from a situation that had nothing good and improve things moving forward," Lochridge said.