Eat all the fresh tomatoes you want. But the elderly and other vulnerable populations should now avoid fresh serrano and jalapeno peppers.
That's the latest word from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, as officials continue searching for the source of an ongoing salmonella outbreak that has affected more than 1,220 people in 42 states.
While health officials were not ready to absolve tomatoes of any connection to early cases of the illness, which appeared in mid April, on Thursday they lifted the warning against all kinds of fresh tomatoes. Farms, including many in Florida, that had been picking tomatoes during the early stages of the outbreak are no longer harvesting. And investigators found no trace of salmonella Saintpaul, the unique strain of bacteria tied to the outbreak, in tomato farms, packinghouses and warehouses in Florida or other states.
Meanwhile, more recent clusters of illnesses, specifically those tied to several Mexican restaurants, have raised suspicions that the illness may be connected to consumption of fresh jalapeno or serrano peppers, either eaten whole or as part of fresh salsas. That led to Thursday's warning that these kinds of peppers should not be eaten by the very young, the elderly and people with impaired immune systems.
The FDA said it has investigators at a packinghouse in Mexico that handles both types of peppers. Officials could not say when the outcome of that investigation might be available.
Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for foods, said it is possible the contamination moved from one type of produce to another over the course of the outbreak, which appears to be decreasing in intensity.
"I'm personally not aware of any such cases of cross-contamination in the past, but this is not following the trail of a regular produce outbreak," Acheson said of the salmonella cases, the latest identified on July 4.
"They usually follow the shelf life of the produce," he said. "But something else is going on here."
Though Acheson stressed the FDA found no problems with Florida farms, the state's tomato growers are still fuming. Ed Angrisani, part-owner of Taylor & Fulton Packaging in Palmetto, said the state's tomato industry lost millions of dollars in sales when the FDA issued its warning in early June. The lifting of the warning comes as he and other growers face decisions about planting the fall tomato crop.
"My business is about 60 percent of what it was before the alert," Angrisani said. "Do I plant 60 percent, 100 percent or not at all? I'll give it another 30 days and see if the business comes back."
Kris Hundley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996.