WASHINGTON (AP) - More than 1,000 people now are confirmed ill
from salmonella initially linked to raw tomatoes, a grim milestone
Wednesday that makes this the worst foodborne outbreak in at least
a decade. Adding to the confusion, the government is warning
certain people to avoid types of hot peppers, too.
Certain raw tomatoes - red round, plum and Roma - remain a chief
suspect and the government stressed again Wednesday that all
consumers should avoid them unless they were harvested in areas
cleared of suspicion.
But people at highest risk of severe illness from salmonella
also should not eat raw jalapeno and serrano peppers, the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention urged Wednesday. The most
vulnerable are the elderly, people with weak immune systems and
Raw jalapenos caused some of the illnesses, conclude CDC
investigations of two clusters of sick people who ate at the same
restaurant or catered event.
But jalapenos cannot be the sole culprit - because many of the
ill insist they didn't eat hot peppers or foods like salsa that
contain them, CDC food safety chief Dr. Robert Tauxe told The
Associated Press. As for serrano peppers, that was included in the
warning because they're difficult for consumers to tell apart.
In some clusters of illnesses, jalapenos "simply were not on
the menu," Tauxe said. "We are quite sure that neither tomatoes
nor jalapenos explain the entire outbreak at this point. ... We're
presuming that both of them have caused illness."
That has Food and Drug Administration inspectors looking hard
for farms that may have grown tomatoes earlier in the spring and
then switched to pepper harvesting, or for distribution centers
that handled both types of produce.
Also still being investigated is fresh cilantro, because a
significant number of people who got sick most recently say they
ate all three - raw tomatoes, jalapenos and cilantro.
"I understand the frustration" that after weeks of warnings,
the outbreak isn't solved, Tauxe said. "But we really are working
as hard and as fast as we can to sort out this complicated
situation and protect the health of the American people."
Added FDA food safety chief Dr. David Acheson: "It's just been
a spectacularly complicated and prolonged outbreak."
The outbreak isn't over, or even showing any sign of slowing,
said Tauxe - with about 25 to 40 cases being a reported a day for
weeks now, to a total of 1,017 known since the outbreak began on
Illnesses now have been reported in 41 states - and even four
cases in Canada, although three of those people are believed to
have been infected while traveling in the U.S. and the fourth is
still being probed.
At least 300 people became ill in June, with the latest falling
sick on June 26. Two deaths are associated with the outbreak - a
Texas man in his 80s, and another Texas man who died of cancer but
for whom salmonella may have played a role - and 203 people have
The toll far surpasses what had been considered the largest
foodborne outbreak of the past decade, the 715 salmonella cases
linked to peanut butter in 2006, Tauxe said. In the mid-1990s,
there were well over 1,000 cases of cyclospora linked to
raspberries, and previous large outbreaks of salmonella from ice
cream and milk.
The CDC acknowledges that for every case of salmonella confirmed
to the government, there may be 30 to 40 others that go undiagnosed
"The outbreak could actually be tens of thousands of people
rather than 1,000 people," agreed Caroline Smith DeWaal of the
consumer advocacy Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It's
certainly a disturbing event to have this many illnesses spanning
this many months."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)