(July 17, 7:34 p.m., PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) Food and Drug Administration investigators are in Mexico scrutinizing a hot pepper packing shed as part of its probe into an outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul, and jalapeño importers are feeling the heat.

“I have tenants in the market that have jalapenos as their mainstay,” said Carlos Zambito, marketing director of the McAllen Produce Terminal Market, McAllen, Texas. “One of those guys is basically going under.”

David Acheson, FDA’s associate commissioner for foods, said July 17 that the agency had dropped its consumer advisory for tomatoes, but an advisory issued July 9 remains in place for fresh jalapeños and serrano peppers.

Public health officials have been working on traceback related to the outbreak since May 31.

“If the people in charge of this investigation were in private business, they would have been fired by now,” Zambito said. “They are incompetent.”

Tomato retail sales plummeted 17% in June, according to the West Dundee, Ill.-based Perishables Group, and some jalapeño importers fear their product is suffering a similar fate in July.

FDA has stepped up its sampling of jalapeño and serrano peppers, and importers said the testing process — which can take up to 10 days — has brought movement virtually to a halt at the Mexican border.

“A lot of people just aren’t bringing product across,” Zambito said.

Jesus Falcon, vice president of Alamo, Texas-based Fresh Tex Produce LLC, said the chain stores he normally sells jalapeños to have informed him that they are sourcing peppers from domestic growers instead.

He said that after 10 days in storage peppers have to be graded so No. 2 product can be removed.

“Then you have another three days,” he said of shelf life. “That’s it.”

He said many Mexican growers are keeping jalapeños in the national market rather than risk having them put on hold in a U.S. warehouse.

“The Mexican market is going to drop,” Falcon said, “just like it did with roma tomatoes.”

Prices in the U.S., meanwhile, appear to be increasing due to lack of supply. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported July 17 that 1 1/9 bushel crates of large Mexican jalapeños were selling for $25 in Dallas. That was up $5-7 from two months earlier.

“It’s hurting farmers, brokers and consumers,” Zambito said. “There’s going to be less product, so it’s going to be more expensive and harder to find.”

Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, said July 17 that the outbreak is ongoing, but it appears to have reached a plateau June 10.

Tauxe said there have been 1,220 reported illnesses and 224 known hospitalizations. The onset date of the most recent reported illness was July 4.