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FDA says serrano pepper from Mexico has salmonella

Another clue to the origins of a nationwide outbreak of salmonella has been found at a pepper farm in Mexico.

But Florida tomato growers are still fuming from the loss of dollars and consumer confidence that occurred when health officials initially thought tomatoes were to blame.

"Tomatoes got a bad rap for no reason," said Ed Angrisani, part-owner of Taylor & Fulton Packing in Palmetto. "I understand they're attempting to protect the public, but you can't take the shotgun approach."

During a congressional hearing on Wednesday, federal health officials said they found the strain of salmonella Saintpaul in irrigation water and a serrano pepper on a farm in Nuevo Leon, Mexico.

Dr. David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration's food safety chief, called the finding a key breakthrough in the case, as did another health official.

"We have a smoking gun, it appears," said Dr. Lonnie King, who directs the center for foodborne illnesses at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The discovery comes a week after the FDA said it found a contaminated jalapeno pepper at a wholesale distributor in McAllen, Texas. That pepper has been traced to a farm in a different part of Mexico.

A state health lab in Colorado also found the unique salmonella strain on a jalapeno provided by a sick individual in Montezuma County. The agency is working with the FDA to do a trace-back on the produce, which was purchased at a local Wal-Mart on June 24.

The salmonella outbreak has affected more than 1,300 people since April, with the latest onset July 12. Last week, the FDA said only jalapenos grown in Mexico were implicated. But tomatoes had been the prime suspect for weeks, with the warning hitting tomato growers in the Tampa Bay area in early June, toward the end of the harvest season.

As a result of the scare, Florida growers saw the demand for their crop decline 60 percent while the wholesale price plummeted nearly 70 percent.

Angrisani, who has tomato fields in South Florida as well as the Palmetto operation, said Florida growers are now trying to decide how much to plant for the fall crop.

"We're going to proceed very cautiously and see what consumption does," he said. "There's no sense in growing what you can't sell."

A bill has been introduced in Congress to reimburse Florida growers, who estimate they lost up to $100-million due to the FDA's warnings. Florida's agricultural commissioner, Charles H. Bronson, is slated to appear before a congressional panel on Thursday morning to push for compensation.

Though peppers are now the focus of the FDA's investigation, health officials insist that tomatoes still cannot be ruled out and that it is quite possible the outbreak was caused by several different kinds of contaminated produce. Though the farm in Nuevo Leon grows hot peppers only, the farm that grew the contaminated jalapeno pepper also grows tomatoes, which were being harvested at the time of the initial outbreak.

Information from Times wires was used in this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

FDA says serrano pepper from Mexico has salmonella 07/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 31, 2008 6:58pm]
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