The FDA is warning Americans not to eat fresh jalapeno peppers or products containing fresh jalapenos, including many kinds of salsa, pico de gallo and guacamole. They're now the prime suspect in the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, which has sickened 1,251 people in 43 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada from April on.
A single jalapeno was found to be contaminated with the salmonella strain in a produce distribution center in McAllen, Texas, called Agricola Zaragoza. Though the pepper was grown in Mexico, the FDA warns that it could have picked up salmonella anywhere along the way. Agricola Zaragoza is voluntarily recalling jalapenos distributed since June 30, 2008.
But there are still almost certainly salmonella-carrying peppers out there, so the FDA is asking people to avoid all raw jalapenos until further notice. Cooked and pickled peppers should be fine. The elderly, infants, and those with compromised immune systems should avoid raw serrano peppers as well.
The first suspect was tomatoes, leading people to begin raising tomatoes at home and seriously question the ubiquity of large agrobusiness. The FDA has now lifted its warning about domestic tomatoes, though the industry is expecting as much as $250 million in losses because of the false accusation. (You can just see the investigators doing a faceplant over a bowl of salsa and sighing, "Not tomatoes ... jalapeno peppers!") This is the first real break in a case that has stymied health officials.
Until the FDA learns more about the outbreak, the best consumers can do is avoid raw jalapenos and follow basic food-safety rules:
-- Discard cut, peeled, or cooked produce items, or refrigerate them within two hours.
-- Don't buy bruised or damaged produce items, and discard any that appear spoiled.
-- Thoroughly wash all produce items under running water.
-- Keep produce you'll eat raw separate from raw meats, raw seafood, and other raw produce items.
-- Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter tops with hot water and soap when switching between types of food products.
If you think you may have salmonella, look for these signs, usually beginning 12-72 hours after you're first infected:
-- Abdominal cramps
The illness usually lasts four to seven days, but in some cases it can enter the bloodstream and lead to death. There's more information about salmonella at the CDC Web site.
Michael Y. Park is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He studied medieval history as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and journalism as a graduate student at New York University. His stories have appeared in publications including The New York Times, the New York Post, and the Toronto Globe and Mail.
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