(July 7, 4:25 p.m.) The Food and Drug Administration has stepped up sampling of domestic and imported produce in its search for the cause of an outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul, but the agency has not blocked Mexican imports at the U.S. border.

“FDA is absolutely not closing the border,” said Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. “CNN ran that report over the weekend, and it has everyone in a tizzy.”

FDA spokesman Michael Herndon confirmed July 7 that the agency has stepped up sampling but is not banning any products related to the investigation.

The outbreak initially was linked to roma and round, red tomatoes in early June, but a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said July 3 that the probe had been expanded to include other items found in fresh salsa.

Cilantro, hot peppers and tomatoes

Silbermann said July 7 that investigators are looking specifically at cilantro, jalapeno peppers, serrano peppers and tomatoes.

Silbermann said FDA is not testing every load of the commodities in question. However, loads that are sampled must be stored in a warehouse — whether imported or domestic — pending results.

He said that in the case of a negative test for Salmonella Saintpaul, product is out of the supply chain only three to four days.

If product tests negative, it is tested again to confirm the initial result. The entire process can take up to a week, Silbermann said.

Silbermann said he had not heard any reports of restaurants or retailers pulling cilantro or peppers, but he said many in the industry are concerned about the flow of product being slowed.

Silbermann said bagged cilantro has a shelf life of 17 days if it’s washed and bagged and about three weeks if it’s bunched. He said the shelf life of peppers varies greatly depending on how quickly they’re cooled after harvesting and the temperature in storage.

Not updating its advisory

Though the FDA has expanded its investigation to include other produce items, the agency has not updated its advisory, which recommends that consumers eat roma and red, round tomatoes only if they are sourced from areas approved by the agency.

“The consumer advisory has caused so much confusion, the less the FDA says in public the more I like it,” Silbermann said. “Unless they have something definitive, it’s best to keep quiet.”

The CDC reported July 7 that the outbreak has caused 971 reported illnesses in 40 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada. Three of the four Canadian victims traveled to the U.S. before becoming ill, the CDC said.

At least 189 people have been hospitalized in the outbreak, and onset dates range from April 10 to June 26.