WASHINGTON - The outbreak of salmonella poisoning that sickened more than 1,300 people across the country and cost American tomato growers more than $300 million has been traced to peppers grown on a farm in Mexico, federal officials said yesterday.
"Now we have a smoking gun, it appears," said Lonnie King, who directs investigations of food-borne illnesses at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
David Acheson, the head of food safety at the Food and Drug Administration, said the strain of Salmonella Saintpaul that caused the nationwide outbreak has been found in irrigation water and serrano peppers on a Mexican farm. Earlier, a contaminated jalapeno pepper had been traced to the Mexican grower.
Consumers should not eat jalapeno and serrano peppers imported from Mexico, Acheson told the Horticulture and Organic Agriculture Subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee.
Members questioned Acheson and King sharply about why it had taken since May to track down the source of the food poisoning and whether they were mistaken all along in associating the illness with tomatoes.
The warning from the federal agencies led to a mass removal of tomatoes from grocery market bins and restaurant menus and cost the industry more than $300 million, said subcommittee chairman Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat. He asked Acheson if a single contaminated tomato was ever found.
"No," Acheson said.
But he refused to completely clear tomatoes. He said tomatoes as well as jalapeno and serrano peppers were grown on the Mexican farm in the state of Tamaulipas with contaminated irrigation water and that tomatoes were processed through the same packing center in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, so it was "plausible" that some of the illnesses could have been caused by tomatoes.
King said the CDC's first series of interviews "indicated raw tomatoes were the most commonly consumed food item - reported by 84 percent of ill persons - leading to the hypothesis that they were a possible source of the illnesses."
On July 21, however, a genetic match with the Salmonellas Saint paul was found in a jalapeno pepper. And now another type of pepper has been implicated. But the officials still wouldn't admit that their agencies had been wrong on tomatoes.
"It appears likely that more than one food vehicle is involved," said King. "The outbreak appears to be ongoing, but with fewer new illnesses each day."
Rep. Tim Mahoney, a Florida Democrat, told the officials that tomato growers in Florida had lost $47 million because the federal warning.
"You understand that crop insurance doesn't cover this," he said pointedly.
The CDC and FDA were criticized by members from both parties.
"This incident demonstrated that our governing food safety authorities are outdated and must be reformed," said Rep. Adam H. Putnam, a Florida Republican.
"Despite the fact that nearly all spinach was harmless in 2006, and the vast majority of jalapenos are probably safe now, and the distinct possibility that not a single tomato was ever contaminated, growers and distributors suffered catastrophic losses," said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat.
The fact that it took more than two months and more than 1,300 illnesses to trace the cause of the outbreak "is extremely troubling," especially considering the attention and funds focused on the process under the Bioterrorism Act, said Cardoza, the subcommittee chairman.
"Clearly serious flaws continue to exist in the methodology used by some states to collect primary epidemiological data," he said. "Furthermore, the process used by the CDC to verify and refine the collected data calls into serious question the effectiveness of communications between the states, CDC and FDA."
King said some states do get data to the CDC faster than others. In half of these cases, he said, it took more than 16 days from the time the person fell ill to the time the DNA footprint of their salmonella was added to the PulseNet database used by the CDC and states.
And in this case, the suspected foods are often eaten together - tomatoes and peppers are both part of many salsa and guacamole recipes, he noted.
When fresh produce is suspected as the source, he said, there is none left around to test for contamination, as there would be for frozen or processed foods.
He said this has been the nation's largest food-borne outbreak of salmonella investigation in a decade and was "especially complex, difficult and prolonged."