Southern California grocery stores reversed themselves Tuesday and started pulling jalapeno peppers from their shelves.
The move comes a day after they left the peppers on the shelves even after the Food and Drug Administration said Monday that the produce could be linked to a national Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak. The moves also highlighted the conflicting messages that the nation’s mostly voluntary food safety network sends out at times like this.
Albertsons reviewed the original advisory from the FDA on Monday and concluded that since the source of the allegedly tainted peppers was a produce distributor in Texas that the grocery chain didn’t use, there was no cause for concern.
But later in the day, the chain saw that the FDA had updated its website and was now advising consumers to avoid raw jalapeno and serrano peppers and foods that contain them, such as fresh salsa and pico de gallo.
At that point Albertsons decided it would be prudent to remove all raw jalapeno peppers from sale Tuesday, spokeswoman Stephanie Martin said.
Ralphs Grocery Co. also stopped selling raw jalapenos Tuesday, a day after the FDA announcement. Vons started removing the peppers from its produce departments late Monday evening.
The slowness in getting peppers out of stores highlights the limited authority of regulators to ensure food safety in the U.S., said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The FDA doesn’t have the mandatory recall authority that would have forced the grocery stores to immediately stop selling peppers, she said. And it should be clearer with its advisories and warnings, she added.
Nonetheless, it is still “up to individual retailers to decide what they are going to do,” DeWaal said.
The nationwide outbreak of the rare Salmonella Saintpaul strain has sickened thousands of people and killed two since April. Regulators have been unable to pinpoint the source of the contamination. At the start of the outbreak, the FDA warned against eating tomatoes, which it originally suspected but has now cleared for consumption.
Given the length of the outbreak and the number of people affected, it’s likely that the source of the contamination is at the farm level or in the transportation system and not limited to a single distributor, DeWaal said.
She also said it was frustrating that the nation didn’t have a workable system in place that could quickly trace the source of contaminated food.
Important provisions that could have helped find the source of the outbreak were adopted by Congress in 2002 but were later watered down after objections by the food industry, DeWaal said. Those provisions included requirements for distributors to record lot or code numbers, and requirements for record availability in four to eight hours that “might have been helpful nailing down this salmonella outbreak much earlier,” she said.
DeWaal said Congress needed to give the FDA the power to create better tools to trace food from the farm to the dinner table and also the authority to issue mandatory recalls. The only product the FDA is empowered to recall is infant formula. Such changes would move the FDA closer to how the U.S. Department of Agriculture monitors the slaughter and sale of meat.
“Congress should not wait for more evidence that the agency doesn’t have the tools it needs,” DeWaal said.
A total of 1,251 salmonella cases 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.
The distribution plant where the tainted 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 imported from Mexico and 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.