Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Jalapeños, Serranos, And ...?

Dr. David Acheson of FDA was testifying before a congressional committee this afternoon. Usually, these hearing can be pretty boring, but today – according to the Wall Street Journal – was different.

Jane Zhang of the Journal reported this afternoon that FDA has found the outbreak strain of Salmonella Saintpaul "...on serrano peppers..." There were few details in the Journal's story, but Associated Press has filled in some important gaps.

The outbreak strain was found by FDA in irrigation water and on serrano peppers from a farm in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. This farm is located in a different part of Mexico from the farm that produced the contaminated jalapeño pepper found at Agricola Zaragoza in McAllen, Texas.

Then there's the tomato connection. Did the farm in Nuevo Leon – or a different farm that also used the same water source for irrigation – also grow tomatoes? Or was New Mexico's tomato connection a false lead? Nuevo Leon was added to FDA's "safe tomato growing area" list (which has now disappeared from the FDA web site) more than a month ago.

Now that FDA has located an environmental source of Salmonella Saintpaul and tied it to contaminated produce, it will likely focus on the following outstanding questions and investigations:
  • How many farms use the same source of irrigation water? Each of these farms will have to be checked for contamination, and produce from these farms traced forward to their ultimate destination. Additional recalls might be necessary.
  • How did the irrigation water become contaminated? The source of the contamination will need to be addressed in order to avoid a repetition of the contamination on future crops.
  • How did the Salmonella Saintpaul transfer from serrano peppers grown in Nuevo Leon to jalapeño peppers grown in a different part of the country? The distribution chains of both items will be scrutinized to look for any cross-over points. The McAllen, Texas finding was a secondary contamination. An employee of Agricola Zaragoza might have been infected with Salmonella Saintpaul and transferred the microbe to the jalapeño pepper while handling produce at the warehouse. The positive result might even have been a lab error.
Another important issue to be addressed is decontamination, both of the irrigation water and of the fields. Once the source of the Salmonella Saintpaul is found and eliminated, Mexican authorities – with assistance from FDA – will need to decontaminate the irrigation water before it can be used again. And the fields must lie fallow for several weeks – Salmonella can survive up to six weeks in soil – to avoid contamination of future crops.

FDA is maintaining its advice, for now, that consumers avoid Mexican-grown raw jalapeño and raw serrano peppers. US-grown peppers are safe to eat.

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