The hunt for the smoking jalapeno is on.
Investigators who spent nearly a month searching for the cause of a salmonella outbreak in tomatoes are now holding and testing shipments of imported jalapenos at the Mexican border in hopes of finding the outbreak strain.
Officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it is premature to declare jalapenos the lead suspect, and still list it with tomatoes, cilantro and serrano peppers as one of the common salsa ingredients under investigation. Officials also have stepped up testing of cilantro and serrano peppers, but "there is no specific 'prime suspect,' " FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek said.
As the number of illnesses tops 900, the stakes are high. If federal officials wait too long for proof, there's a risk that more people will get sick. But if they single out the wrong food, a mistake could cost an industry millions of dollars. The tomato industry says it already has lost $100 million.
The FDA continues to warn consumers not to eat Roma, red plum and red round tomatoes not attached to the vine if they were grown outside certain areas. Cherry and grape tomatoes and tomatoes on the vine are considered safe.
FDA officials said Monday that they might change the warning depending on the outcome of the testing. So far, they have not warned against jalapenos.
This is the latest twist in an outbreak that began in April.
Because it takes two weeks for lab tests to confirm the presence of salmonella, it wasn't until May that the number of cases suggested an outbreak. The outbreak spread to 40 states, making coordination difficult among state health officials and two federal bodies, the FDA and CDC. Much of the evidence comes from patient interviews, and memories may be faulty.
After the FDA issued its tomato warning in early June, some state and local investigators around the country had doubts about whether tomatoes were the culprit.
Confidence in the tomato theory began to falter about two weeks ago. People had continued to get sick well after the FDA's June 7 warning on tomatoes. Reviews of orders and shipping records didn't lead back to a single farm or supplier, as they did in the 2006 E. coli outbreak in bagged spinach. FDA and CDC officials then expanded the probe to include other salsa ingredients based on a new round of interviews with people who fell ill after June 1, CDC spokesman Glen Nowak said.
Experts in food-borne illness said that of the shortlist of suspects, jalapenos would best fit the timing, duration and distribution of the outbreak.
Produce industry insiders, however, doubt that fresh produce is to blame. If a jalapeno field was contaminated, they said, the plants on that field would have stopped producing fruit well before the latest illnesses began. They are angry at what they see as the FDA's poor handling of the probe.