Jalapenos added to salmonella list

The Washington Post

Federal health officials now blame raw jalapenos for some of the illnesses in the 3-month-old salmonella outbreak and Wednesday advised the elderly, infants and people with compromised immune systems to avoid them.

Investigators still think tomatoes -- the original suspect in the outbreak -- have made people sick and are considering the possibility that the same rare strain of salmonella has contaminated both tomatoes and peppers.

The number of people who have been sickened has reached 1,017, making it the largest outbreak of food-borne illness in 10 years, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One death, that of a Texas man in his 80s, has been linked to the outbreak. Another Texas man in his 60s, who died of cancer, was infected with the outbreak strain.


The new warning also applies to serrano peppers, which are often confused with jalapenos. Last week officials started testing peppers for Salmonella Saintpaul, but had not issued a warning until Wednesday.

Health officials targeted the jalapeno warning at a smaller segment of the population than the one previously issued for tomatoes because they have not linked specific jalapeno varieties to the outbreak.

“We thought of this as our way of protecting those at greatest risk as more information develops about jalapenos,” said Robert Tauxe, a top official with the CDC, which is leading the probe with the Food and Drug Administration.

The tomato recommendation -- to avoid red plum, Roma and vineless red round tomatoes grown outside certain areas -- remains in effect for all consumers.

The effect of the jalapeno warning rippled through the food industry Wednesday. “We are going to put a hold on our raw jalapeno inventory,” said Mark Palmer, spokesman for Sysco Corp., the largest food distributor in North America.

The company will stop distributing as well as receiving the peppers.

The new recommendation is not likely to have as broad an economic effect as the tomato warning because jalapenos are not consumed as widely, but it is likely to add to the woes of growers and importers who have had shipments held for testing by the FDA in recent days.


Investigators have not found the bacteria on any of the peppers they’ve tested, said David Acheson, a top food safety official with the agency.

The FDA is waiting for results on many more samples.

Investigators added jalapenos, cilantro and serrano peppers to the list of suspects last week based on a new round of interviews with people who got sick in June. They began considering other types of produce after people continued to fall ill despite the warning to avoid certain tomatoes.

The jalapeno warning was based on the results of recent investigations of three large clusters of illnesses involving restaurants, the CDC said. A “cluster” is created when at least two people get sick after eating in the same location within a short time.

Some in the clusters reported eating dishes containing tomatoes and jalapenos. Others said they ate dishes that had jalapenos and did not have tomatoes, cilantro or serrano peppers. “The accumulated data from all investigations indicate that jalapeno peppers caused some illnesses but that they do not explain all illnesses,” the CDC said.