FDA finds salmonella strain at second Mexican farm
WASHINGTON – 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 Wednesday.
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.
“We have a smoking gun, it appears,” said Dr. Lonnie King, who directs the center for foodborne illnesses at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Acheson said the farm is in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Previously, the FDA had traced a contaminated jalapeno pepper to a farm in another part of Mexico, called Tamaulipas. Both farms shipped through a packing facility in Nuevo Leon, raising the possibility that contamination could have occurred there.
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.
“For weeks and weeks, investigators were on the trail of the wrong product,” Thomas Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Assn., told the House Agriculture Committee.
But federal officials insisted that tomatoes still cannot be ruled out and that it is quite possible the outbreak was caused by several different kinds of contaminated produce.
“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.
Tomatoes had been the prime suspect in the nationwide outbreak for weeks. But last week, the FDA said only jalapeno peppers grown in Mexico were currently implicated in the nationwide salmonella outbreak. The FDA said then it had found the same strain of salmonella responsible for the outbreak on a single Mexican-grown jalapeno in a south Texas produce warehouse. The agency explained that any contaminated tomatoes would be out of the food supply chain by now.