Jalapeños, Cilantro Eyed as Salmonella Suspects

Health officials expand the salmonella probe to Mexican produce.

July 6, 2008 — -- As the salmonella outbreak spreads across the United States, the Food and Drug Administration is now looking at produce, such as jalapeño peppers and cilantro, as possible culprits.

Close to 1,000 people in 40 states have been sickened by the salmonella bacteria so far, and health officials are desperate to find the source.

"All of our conversations with people who have gotten ill -- probably 80 percent -- have eaten tomatoes, so that's where the focus has been," Emily Palmer, a spokeswoman with the Texas Department of State Health Services, said. "However, we do want to make sure that there's not something else that may be associated with tomatoes."

The Chicago Department of Health has identified several cases of salmonella poisoning from people who ate at Mexican restaurants, leading them to widen the investigation to ingredients often found in salsa and guacamole.

Officials have turned their focus to the critical points of the food chain. Imported produce is now being tested at border entry points and will not be distributed to consumers without FDA approval.

With the number of reported cases of salmonella poisoning increasing, consumers are also taking extra precautions.

"I always double wash everything, even if it says washed twice," said concerned mom Kimberly Doyle.

Farmers and restaurants have been hit hard by the scare, with hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.

"We have to get better at identifying outbreaks sooner, preventing them in the first place, and then, if a problem does occur, we have to get better at responding more quickly," Amy Philpott, a spokeswoman for the United Fresh Produce Association, said.

The FDA says it's now trying to figure out whether the produce is being contaminated in a common packing or shipping site, or from a common water source.

General symptoms of salmonella poisoning are fever and diarrhea, but symptoms may not show up until three days after eating infected food.