Salmonella found in jalapeno

Times Staff Writers

Fresh jalapeno peppers joined tomatoes as possible culprits in the nationwide Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak that has sickened thousands of people and killed two since April, the federal government confirmed Monday.

The same salmonella strain once thought to have originated in raw tomatoes was found in a Mexican-grown jalapeno in a Texas distributing plant, the Food and Drug Administration said Monday, prompting a nationwide warning for consumers to avoid fresh jalapenos and food products made with fresh jalapeno peppers.

Processed, cooked or pickled jalapeno peppers are not included in the warning.

Unlike this spring, when alarm caused major supermarket chains to pull tomatoes from their shelves, Southern California merchants are keeping jalapenos on the market.


The development signified a major break in the investigation, but FDA officials said they still were not certain of the contamination’s origin.

They said they didn’t know whether the contamination occurred in Mexico, at the Texas plant or at some other point in the production process.

“This one sample doesn’t give the whole story,” said David Acheson, the FDA’s food safety chief. But it lets officials “focus the investigation on the production chain that will ultimately enable them to pinpoint the outbreak of the contamination,” he said.

The distribution plant where the jalapeno was found belongs to Agricola Zaragoza Inc. and is located in McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley.

The company said the produce in question was shipped to Texas and Georgia, but it wasn’t clear whether any of the reported illnesses were related to its peppers.

Distribution of Agricola’s peppers has been suspended while the FDA, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the company investigate the problem.


Inspectors are also in Mexico searching for evidence of contamination, Acheson said.

In Southern California, Albertsons said its markets would continue selling jalapenos despite the warning. A spokeswoman for the chain said it doesn’t get its peppers from Agricola.

Ralphs and Vons also have not removed peppers from their produce bins.

“We’re reviewing information from the FDA on jalapeno peppers and will take all appropriate action based on FDA recommendations,” said Vons spokesman Daymond Rice.

Monday’s development didn’t clear tomatoes sold earlier in the spring and summer. But FDA officials are no longer urging consumers to avoid tomatoes of any type.

Tomatoes on the market are not contaminated, Acheson said.

Since the salmonella outbreak began, FDA scientists and field agents have expanded their investigation to include jalapeno and serrano peppers.

Robert Tauxe of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that investigators may never be able to determine ultimately whether tomatoes are to blame, but that they are pursuing several leads in the Southwest, where clusters of outbreaks have occurred.

A total of 1,251 people infected with salmonella have been reported in 43 states, the District of Columbia and Canada since April.


There have been 229 people hospitalized, and two have died. The latest case was reported July 4.--