Mexican Peppers Posed Problem Before Outbreak

AP, August 19, 2008

Federal inspectors at U.S. border crossings repeatedly turned back filthy, disease-ridden shipments of peppers from Mexico in the months before a salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,400 people was finally traced to Mexican chilies.

Yet no larger action was taken. Food and Drug Administration officials insisted as recently as last week that they were surprised by the outbreak because Mexican peppers had not been spotted as a problem before.

But an Associated Press analysis of FDA records found that peppers and chilies were consistently the top Mexican crop rejected by border inspectors for the last year.

Since January alone, 88 shipments of fresh and dried chilies were turned away. Ten percent were contaminated with salmonella. In the last year, 8 percent of the 158 intercepted shipments of fresh and dried chilies had salmonella.

On Friday, Dr. David Acheson, the FDA’s food safety chief, told reporters peppers were not a cause for concern before they were implicated in the salmonella outbreak.

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In the last year, the agency’s data shows that dozens of cases were turned back due to filth, illegal pesticides and in one case, something poisonous.

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The agency has long considered salmonella to be a risk in dried chilies, since foreign spice traders often leave peppers to dry in the sun where they’re vulnerable to contamination from birds and other animals, Buchanan said.

Inspectors might have looked over the odd box of fresh Mexican chilies, but no one paid raw peppers much attention since they were not mentioned as a high-risk crop, he said.

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