July 22 -- MONDAY, July 21 (HealthDay News) -- Four days after giving fresh tomatoes the all-clear signal, U.S. health officials are now pointing a warning finger at jalapeno peppers as the source of the ongoing salmonella outbreak.
A sample of jalapenos tainted with Salmonella saintpaul was found at a packing plant in Texas and came from a farm in Mexico, Dr. David Acheson, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's associate commissioner for foods, announced at a mid-afternoon teleconference Monday.
"While this one sample doesn't give us the whole story, this genetic match is a very important break in the case," Acheson said. "This will ultimately, hopefully, allow us to pinpoint the source of the contamination, which has caused the outbreak."
Acheson was quick to note that, while the contaminated pepper was grown on a farm in Mexico, "that does not mean that the pepper was contaminated in Mexico."
"FDA has presented the information to the firm and a recall is now under way," Acheson added.
Acheson identified the firm as Agricola Zaragoza Inc., of Mcallen, Texas, which, according to its company's online profile, is a small wholesale distributor of fruits and vegetables.
Acheson added that a warning issued last week against eating either jalapeno or serrano peppers if you are at risk of infection continues. The warning includes infants and elderly people.
Raw jalapeno peppers are often used in the preparation of salsa, pico de gallo, and other dishes.
Meanwhile, the toll of confirmed cases stands at 1,251 people sickened in 43 states in what has become the largest foodborne outbreak in the United States in more than a decade. At least 228 victims required hospitalization.
On Thursday, Acheson had announced that tomatoes were back on the menu again.
" FDA officials believe that consumers may now enjoy all types of fresh tomatoes available on the domestic market without concern about becoming infected with Salmonella saintpaul bacteria," he said.
But a warning against jalapeno and serrano peppers remains in effect, he added.
"We still do not know where the original contamination was," Acheson acknowledged during last week's teleconference.
When the outbreak began in April, early signs pointed to raw tomatoes -- particularly raw round, red tomatoes, plum or Roma tomatoes -- as the likely source of contamination. But Acheson said the ban was lifted Thursday because it's highly unlikely that any tomatoes that were on the market at the start of the outbreak remain on the market.
The FDA has found no samples of salmonella in tomatoes on any of the farms or in any of the packing houses investigated, he added.
As later cases of salmonella infection came in, more evidence seemed to point to peppers. As a result, the FDA, in cooperation with Mexican officials, dispatched inspectors to a specific packer in Mexico that receives peppers from several farms, Acheson said.
According to the CDC, people stricken during the outbreak have ranged in age from under 1 to 99 years old, and 50 percent are female. The rate of illness has been highest among those 20 to 29 years old; it is lowest among adolescents 10 to 19 years old and people over 80.
According to the CDC's latest count as of July 18, the breakdown by state of ill people shows: Alabama (2 persons), Arkansas (16), Arizona (54), California (9), Colorado (16), Connecticut (4), Florida (3), Georgia (28), Idaho (6), Illinois (113), Indiana (18), Iowa (2), Kansas (19), Kentucky (2), Louisiana (1), Maine (1), Maryland (36), Massachusetts (28), Michigan (24), Minnesota (22), Mississippi (2), Missouri (20), Montana (1), New Hampshire (5), Nevada (12), New Jersey (12), New Mexico (102), New York (38), North Carolina (23), Ohio (10), Oklahoma (25), Oregon (10), Pennsylvania (12), Rhode Island (3), South Carolina (2), Tennessee (9), Texas (475), Utah (2), Virginia (31), Vermont (2), Washington (17), West Virginia (1), Wisconsin (13), and the District of Columbia (1). Five ill persons are from Canada; four appear to have been infected while traveling in the United States, and one individual remains under investigation.
Salmonella is a bacteria that can cause bloody diarrhea in humans. Some 40,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported in the United States each year, although the CDC estimates that because milder cases aren't diagnosed or reported, the actual number of infections may be 30 or more times greater. Approximately 600 people die each year after being infected.
However, the strain of Salmonella saintpaul had been previously considered rare. In 2007, according to the CDC, there were only six people infected in the country during April through June.
Meanwhile, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll last week found that the salmonella outbreak has unnerved many consumers, with nearly half of Americans saying they're worried they could get sick from eating contaminated food. And they're avoiding foods they'd normally buy.
Three-quarters of those polled said they remain confident about the overall safety of foods. But the poll also found that 86 percent of consumers back the idea of a "tracing" system for produce. This would allow for the labeling of produce so it could be tracked from the farm, through packers and shippers, to supermarkets. The lack of such a system hampered federal officials in their efforts to determine the cause of the latest outbreak.
Visit the FDA for more on the salmonella outbreak.
SOURCES: July 21, 2008, teleconference with David Acheson, M.D., associate commissioner for foods, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Associated Press