July 2008

The first lawsuit stemming from the Salmonella outbreak that has sickened 1319 people, hospitalized 255 and caused the death of 2 in 43 states, the District of Columbia and Canada was filed today in the District Court of Montezuma County, Colorado.

The complaint was filed on behalf of Delores, Colorado resident Brian Grubbs against Wal-Mart and an unknown supplier, referred to as “John Doe”.

The lawsuit states that the Grubbs family purchased raw jalapeno peppers from the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Cortez, Colorado in late June, and that Mr. Grubbs ate them over the next week. He fell ill on July 3, experiencing nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, and diarrhea. Over the next several days, Mr. Grubbs’ condition continued to worsen; he lost a great deal of weight, was severely dehydrated, and could not walk without assistance. His wife drove him to the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, New Mexico, where he was treated for dehydration and decreased kidney and liver functions. Samples taken at the time later revealed that he was positive for salmonella Saintpaul.

“Consumers believe that retailers like Wal-Mart know the quality and safety of products they sell,” said William Marler, the Grubbs’ attorney. “Retailers benefit from that trust, and must be held accountable for the products they sell.”

The Grubbs family still possessed some of the peppers that Mr. Grubbs had consumed, and provided them to authorities. Tests revealed that the peppers were tainted with salmonella Saintpaul, and provided one of the first reported physical links in the three-month-long search for the source of the outbreak.

Salmonellosis illnesses from the Saintpaul strain began showing up in Texas and New Mexico in late April, and in early June the CDC linked those illnesses to raw tomatoes and issued consumer warnings. Advisories were widened to include foods commonly consumed with tomatoes, such as peppers, cilantro, and onions, then narrowed to raw jalapeno and serrano peppers. On July 30, the FDA confirmed the presence of salmonella Saintpaul at a farm in Mexico, both in irrigation water and on produce. The investigation is continuing. (A full timeline of the outbreak can be found here.)

Salmonella is a bacterium that causes one of the most common intestinal illnesses in the US: salmonellosis infection. It can be present in uncooked or undercooked meat, poultry, eggs, or unpasturized dairy products, as well as other foods contaminated during harvest, production, or packaging. Symptoms can begin 6 to 72 hours from consumption, and include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, nausea, and/or vomiting. In most victims, symptoms will lessen over a period of 10 days to 2 weeks, although it may take months for body functions to return to normal. In others, the infection can lead to more severe illnesses such as typhoid fever and bacteremia. There are many strains of the bacterium; salmonella Saintpaul is a fairly common serotype, but the specific subtype, or fingerprint, associated with this outbreak is very rare.

They managed to do it with a little drum roll before a Congressional committee.   The smoking hot pepper has been captured across the Rio Grande in Mexico.   Here’s a bit of what the Washington Post reported just a short time ago:

Investigators discovered the Salmonella saintpaul strain in irrigation water and serrano peppers on a farm in Mexico, where jalapeno peppers are also grown.

"We have a smoking gun it appears," said Lonnie King, a director at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Food and Drug Administration, which earlier issued a warning about jalapeno peppers, is now warning consumers also to avoid raw serrano peppers grown and packed in Mexico.

Here’s how the dots were connected:

The farm where the contaminated water was found grows only jalapeno and Serrano peppers. It supplied a packing facility in Mexico that also did business with Agricola Zaragosa, the McAllen, Tex., distributor where FDA inspectors found tainted jalapeno peppers last week. The farm and the packing facility are located in Nuevo Leon, a state in northeastern Mexico. A portion of Nuevo Leon borders Texas.

FDA is also awaiting the results of samples collected from a different farm in Tamaulipas, Mexico  It  supplied the tainted jalapeno peppers found at Agricola Zaragosa,  It’s possible that the contamination occurred not at that farm but at a distribution center.

Both Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas are separated from the U.S. only by the Rio Grande and the farms are easily accessbile to U.S. distributors.

Check out the entire Wapo story here.

As we go into the weekend, we know more than at anytime since the start of the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak.  We know the source of the outbreak is jalapeño peppers grown, harvested or packed in Mexico.  We know jalapeño and Serrano peppers grown in the USA are safe to eat, be they raw, canned, pickled or cooked.

We know the outbreak is not over, but its winding down.   The latest onset of the illness was July 10th.   That date bumped forward by a week during the last couple of days.  The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) explained how responsibility has been pinned on Mexico.   According to FDA:

Additional traceback information obtained this week indicates that the Agricola Zaragoza plant in McAllen, Texas—from where the positive jalapeño pepper sample was taken—have determined that the Texas plant was not the original source of the contamination.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) said the number of confirmed cases as of late July 24 stood at 1,294.  CDC said 31 people became ill between July 1 and 11.  The outbreak falls just five states short of covering the entire "Lower 48" states.  We think the CDC’s epidemic curve shows the outbreak in its winding down stage.

Continue Reading The Salmonella Saintpaul Outbreak–The Fat Lady Isn’t Singing, But She Maybe Warming Up!

Did one state with its act together on food poisoning cases crack the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak when all the expertise of the federal government ended up looking like the keystone cops?    The Minneapolis Star-Tribune in a story published on its website tonight, says the answer to that question would be: "Yah, sure! You betcha!"

In ‘Team Diarrhea’ called in to crack salmonella case, Star Tribune health reporters Josephine Marcotty and Maura Lerner, write:

In less than two weeks, Minnesota Department of Health investigators traced the source of a mysterious salmonella outbreak that had stumped federal health officials for two months and sickened more than 1,200 people in 43 states and Canada.

And in explaining how it all happened, they report:

A gee-whiz state lab, investigators dubbed "Team Diarrhea" and a unique approach to sleuthing illness contributed to the breakthrough.

The job the Gopher State did brought this comment:

What happened in Minnesota should be the norm," said Mike Osterholm, University of Minnesota foodborne illness expert and an adviser to state and federal health agencies. "They did it quickly and they did it effectively and they were able to trace back what nobody else was able to trace back."

As for how it happened, read the story.  Everybody who has been involved in this long Salmonella Saintpaul saga will be doing the same.

Jalapeno Peppers  distributed since June 30th by Agricola Zaragoza, Inc. to customers in Georgia and Texas are being recalled because sampling by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) found these Jalapenos are contaminated with the same strain of Salmonella Saintpaul that is responsible for the current Salmonella outbreak.

The Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak has contributed to two deaths and sickened over 1,200 people in 43 states and the District of Columbia.

The Mexican-grown Jalapeno Peppers being recalled were shipped in 35lb. plastic crates and in 50lb. bags with no brand name or label.

It is unknown at this time which, if any, of the more than 1,200 illnesses reported to date are related to this particular product or to the grower who supplied this product. Distribution of these products has been suspended while FDA, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the company continue their investigation as to the source of the problem.

Consumers and retailers who purchased Jalapeno Peppers should contact their supplier to determine if their products are involved in the recall. Commercial manufacturers that have used these recalled Jalapeno Peppers as an ingredient in other products (i.e. salsas, etc.) are encouraged to contact their local FDA office to determine if these products should be recalled.

 Additionally, restaurants, retail food stores, and similar retail institutions that have used these Jalapeno Peppers as a garnish or as an ingredient to prepare entrees, salsas or other products are asked to dispose of these products making sure that all such peppers are not inadvertently made available for purchase, salvage or donation and therefore preventing any possibility for human or animal consumption..  Consumers with questions may contact the company at (956)-631-6405.

Only showing how our food system is truly global, today, US government inspectors have found Salmonella Saintpaul, the strain responsible for a nationwide food-poisoning outbreak, in Mexican-grown jalapenos in a Texas plant, prompting a new warning for consumers to avoid eating fresh jalapenos.

However, the FDA continues to say that it doesn’t mean Mexican jalapenos are the culprit — the pepper may not have been contaminated on the farm. And while tomatoes currently are safe to eat, health officials also said the finding doesn’t exonerate tomatoes that were sold earlier in the spring and summer.

Ouch, that makes my head hurt.

According to the CDC since April, 1237 persons infected genetic fingerprint have been identified in 43 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada. These were identified because clinical laboratories in all states send Salmonella strains from ill persons to their State public health laboratory for characterization. One new state, Montana, reported a case. The number of ill persons identified in each state is as follows: Alabama (2 persons), Arkansas (16), Arizona (54), California (9), Colorado (16), Connecticut (4), Florida (3), Georgia (28), Idaho (6), Illinois (113), Indiana (18), Iowa (2), Kansas (19), Kentucky (2), Louisiana (1), Maine (1), Maryland (36), Massachusetts (28), Michigan (24), Minnesota (22), Mississippi (2), Missouri (20), Montana (1), New Hampshire (5), Nevada (12), New Jersey (12), New Mexico (102), New York (38), North Carolina (23), Ohio (10), Oklahoma (25), Oregon (10), Pennsylvania (12), Rhode Island (3), South Carolina (2), Tennessee (9), Texas (475), Utah (2), Virginia (31), Vermont (2), Washington (17), West Virginia (1), Wisconsin (13), and the District of Columbia (1). Five ill persons are reported from Canada; four appear to have been infected while traveling in the United States, and one illness remains under investigation.

Also, according to the CDC, Illnesses have been linked to consumption of an "item" containing fresh tomatoes and fresh jalapeño peppers.  Illnesses were also linked to an "item" containing fresh jalapeño peppers and no other of the suspect items.  The accumulated data from all investigations indicate that jalapeño peppers caused some illnesses but that they do not explain all illnesses.  Raw tomatoes, fresh serrano peppers, and fresh cilantro also remain under investigation.

The FDA has a slightly different take on this:

Consumers may resume enjoying any type of fresh tomato, including raw red plum, raw red Roma, and raw red round tomatoes.

While we are changing our consumer guidance about tomatoes, we reiterate our guidance to consumers that those in vulnerable populations (infants, the elderly, and immune-compromised people) should avoid eating jalapeño and serrano peppers as the investigation continues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that many, but not all, of the people who have become ill during the outbreak also reported eating jalapeño or serrano peppers.

The State of North Carolina has forced the recall of Mexican-grown HASS avocados and jalapenos of unknown origin after they tested positive for Salmonella.

Two samples from a Charlotte, NC food distributor tested positive for salmonella. The state asked the company to recall jalapeno peppers and HASS avocados it received from a specific Texas food supply company.

In addition, the Texas supplier has been requested to recall all of the implicated products distributed in North Carolina.

The HASS avocados were shipped from Texas in boxes labeled "Frutas Finas de Tancitaro HASS Avocados, Produce of Mexico," 60 count with lot number HUE08160090889.

The jalapenos were shipped in black plastic crates weighing about 15 pounds
and containing no brand name or other label.

There is no confirmation yet that this contamination is the same Salmonella Saintpaul strain that has sickened 23 people in North Carolina and more than 1,200 people nationwide.

State Public Health Director Leah Devlin said, "We do not know yet whether this is the Salmonella Saintpaul strain, but these potentially contaminated products must be removed regardless."

ABC News just reported:

 The U.S. government has declared it’s OK to eat tomatoes again, lifting its salmonella warning amid signs that the outbreak — while not over — may finally be slowing.

Officials reiterated earlier warnings that the people most at risk of salmonella should avoid hot peppers — jalapenos and serranos.

The government still doesn’t know just what caused the salmonella outbreak, and Thursday’s move doesn’t mean tomatoes are cleared.

Early on, there was good evidence linking them to the sick, but it’s unlikely that any field where tomatoes were harvested in April and May still is in production.

That’s the latest.  Oh, and at least 1,196 confirmed cases of Salmonella Saintpaul, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.