Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, AP, July 31, 2008
The salmonella strain linked to a nationwide outbreak has been found in irrigation water and in a sample from a batch of serrano peppers at a Mexican farm, federal health officials said.
Dr. David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety chief, called the finding a key breakthrough in the case, as did another health official.
Acheson said the farm is in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Previously, the FDA had traced a contaminated jalapeno pepper to a farm in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Both farms shipped through a packing facility in Nuevo Leon, raising the possibility that contamination could have occurred there.
The FDA advised consumers to avoid raw serrano peppers from Mexico, in addition to raw jalapeno peppers from Mexico, and any foods that contain them.
In a statement Wednesday, Mexico’s Agriculture Department said it “rejects” the FDA’s conclusion that the source of the salmonella outbreak had been located in the Mexican farm’s irrigation water.
“The farm unit in question ended its harvest more than a month ago, so the sample they say they have lacks scientific validity” because the sample “was taken recently from a tank holding rain water that was not used in production,” the statement said.
“The government reiterates its call for the FDA to use information responsibly and, above all, to base it on scientific evidence,” the statement concluded.
Acheson and other officials were grilled at a congressional hearing about why the investigation originally focused on tomatoes. Industry representatives complained that they have lost more than $300 million and had to dump tons of perfectly good tomatoes they could not sell because of government warnings. The probe was slowed even more because FDA investigators were unfamiliar with the workings of the tomato industry and were reluctant to share information, they said.
“I don’t think we can say that (tomatoes) were needlessly dumped,” Acheson told reporters after the hearing. “The early part of the investigation clearly implicated tomatoes.”
The outbreak has sickened more than 1,300 people since April.
Lawmakers are considering a range of reforms to prevent future outbreaks and speed their investigation. These include improving communication between investigators and the industry, imposing standards for good agricultural practices and improving traceability.