Salmonella Mystery Nowhere Near Solved

The <"">Salmonella St. Paul outbreak has been under investigation for seven weeks and health officials are nowhere near solving the nation’s largest food borne poisoning outbreak in at least one decade.  Meanwhile, federal health officials have not shortened the list of potential sources for the poisoning, but are adding to it.

Originally, the outbreak was thought to have originated from a variety of raw tomatoes and products made from those tomatoes.  Recently Jalapeno and Serrano peppers, as well as fresh cilantro have been added to the list and Jalapeno pepper producers are being investigated with tomato distributors; fresh cilantro is under suspicion  “I wish I could have a crystal ball and say it’s one of those three things,” Dr. David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) food safety chief, said. “This has gone on longer and has been more complicated than anything I’ve worked on at FDA.”

The ongoing Salmonella outbreak is a far cry from 2006’s E. coli outbreak in spinach that was resolved in about two weeks.  “We really, really got spoiled, if you will, with the spinach outbreak,” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, food safety chief at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Perhaps the spinach outbreak was a bit easier to resolve because there are more tomato lovers and spinach consumers remembered eating spinach from bags that were often still in their refrigerators.  In that case, the bags bore bar codes that provided investigators with a fingerprint back to the spinach field that had been contaminated.  In this Salmonella case, the contaminated food seems to be rarely left over in the refrigerator and does not bear individual bar codes.  Also, victims are having a more difficult time remembering what caused their illnesses.

And, this Salmonella outbreak is lasting an unusually long time with a record 1,065 cases confirmed yesterday; the first reported illness goes back to April 10 with the most recent reported June 26.  The incredible scope of the outbreak does not bode well for public health and the tomato industry; however, the catastrophe is providing federal investigators with some new clues.  For instance, early on, a lot of individuals fell ill, not clusters of people who ate at the same restaurant or catered event.  By mid-May and continuing well into June, clusters sickened in the same spot began emerging.  Also, the CDC just completed a comparison of 144 people who became ill in June to 287 people who live nearby, but did not fall ill.

That CDC study reveals that those who fell ill were likelier that those not affected to have eaten raw tomatoes, raw jalapeno peppers, or fresh cilantro.  In one large cluster, those sickened had consumed fresh tomatoes and fresh jalapenos mixed together.  In two other large clusters, illnesses were linked to a dish that contained fresh jalapenos but no tomatoes.  Because of these new findings, the FDA is looking for connections between peppers and tomatoes.  For instance, it is possible that there are farms that grew tomatoes and later switched to pepper harvesting, or distribution centers that handled both types of produce, Acheson said.

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