(Aug. 22, 4:30 p.m.) The Food and Drug Administration has completed its first round of sampling produce items found in fresh salsa, and at least eight domestic companies had products that tested positive for salmonella.
It was unclear if any of the products were tainted with Salmonella Saintpaul, the strain that has caused more than 1,400 illnesses since April. FDA spokesman Sebastian Cianci said at least three other strains of salmonella were found.
After testing of tomatoes failed to produce a positive related to the outbreak in June, FDA widened its scope in July to look at other items found in fresh salsa, including jalapeño peppers, serrano peppers and cilantro. Cianci said 5% to 6% of the samples taken in July and early August tested positive for some form of salmonella.
He said two-thirds of the positives were sampled in Mexico or from Mexican imports at border crossings. The other one-third was found at U.S. companies.
It was unclear if the tainted products found in the U.S. — which included jalapeño peppers, serrano peppers, cilantro and avocadoes — were domestically grown or imported.
Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said it was not surprising that positive tests spiked during a period of increased sampling.
“We know there is a small percentage of produce that gets contaminated,” she said. “When you go looking for it, you might find it. That’s why you do testing, to see if your systems are working and make corrections if they’re not.”
Cianci said FDA has started another testing assignment, during which the agency steps up its sampling of certain products. He declined to say what commodities were being tested, though he said it applied to domestic and imported product.
As previously reported, Cianci said Aug. 14 that at least 17 Mexican companies had been put on import alert in July and August because of positive salmonella tests found on hot peppers, cilantro and basil.
“In order to be most effective at alleviating consumers’ concerns, food safety standards must by applied equally to both imported and domestic product,” said Amy Philpott, vice president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association. “Good agricultural and handling practices must be applied regardless of where a product is grown. In fact, country of origin is not an indication of food safety. Produce can be grown safely in countries around the world, or not.”
The Associated Press reported Aug. 19 that its analysis of FDA records showed that peppers and chilies were the leading Mexican commodity rejected by border inspectors in the last year. The AP reported that since January, 88 shipments of fresh and dried chilies had been rejected. Of those, 10% were contaminated with salmonella.
Those findings led consumer groups to question why public health officials focused their efforts on tomatoes for more than a month before looking at other products.
“Early evidence that CDC provided to us indicated that tomatoes were the problem,” Cianci said.
While numerous pepper shipments have been turned back, Cianci said that rejected loads don’t necessarily result in an import alert unless there is an ongoing outbreak. Typically, he said, companies are put on import alert after a second failed test.
As for the eight domestic companies with positive tests, Cianci said Aug. 19 that most of them failed to issue a recall notice because by the time the positive test was conformed the product was no longer in the market.
Cianci said recalled products should be published in the FDA’s enforcement report.
However, that the feature, which is updated weekly on the FDA’s Web site, is months behind in some cases. For example, Honduran cantaloupe recalled March 22 by Mike’s Melons was reported in the July 16 enforcement report.
Here are the U.S. companies known to have had positive salmonella tests during the FDA’s July and early August assignment:
- Chandler, Ariz.-based retailer Basha’s Inc. (jalapeños);
- Buena Park, Calif.-based grower-shipper Legacy Farms LLC (serranos);
- Portland, Ore.-based distributor Caruso Produce (jalapeños);
- Jersey City, N.J.-based wholesaler Miami Growers Inc. (cilantro);
- Chicago-based wholesaler La Galera Produce LLC (cilantro);
- Fort Lupton, Colo.-based grower-shipper Villano Bros. Farm (cilantro);
- Hildalgo, Texas-based distributor Grande Produce Ltd. Co. (jalapeños, serranos and avocados); and
- Distributor Charlie’s Produce, Portland, Ore., (cilantro).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Aug. 20 that there have been 1,434 reported illnesses in the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak in 43 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada. There have been at least 273 hospitalizations. The most recent onset date of a reported illness is Aug. 8.