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Within days of lifting a ban on some raw tomatoes that had skewered the tomato industry for nearly two months, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it has identified a jalapeno pepper contaminated with the same strain of Salmonella Saintpaul that has been blamed for causing more than 1,237 illnesses in 43 states.
Monday's news declaring that government officials had found the "smoking pepper" marked the first time in the course of the lengthy investigation that a test produced the identical genetic fingerprint as the current outbreak. The guilt sample was from a jalapeno pepper found in a McAllen, Texas packing plant. It had originated on a farm in Mexico.
The sample was taken in Agricola Zaragoza's facility, and FDA said the company has begun a recall of all peppers it has shipped.
"While this one sample doesn't give us the whole story, this genetic match is a very important break in the case," Dr. David Acheson, FDA's associate commissioner for foods said during a teleconference Monday. Acheson said the detection will hopefully allow the government "to pinpoint the source of the contamination which has caused the outbreak."
While the traceback investigation indicated that the peppers taken from Agricola Zaragoza's facility were grown in Mexico, the FDA said it had not yet determined where the point of contamination occurred, and it pledged to continue analyzing all the steps in the supply chain prior to the product's arrival at the facility, as well determine where the peppers went after the left the facility.
Because it is unclear whether any contaminated peppers may still be in the market in either raw or prepared form, FDA advised consumers to avoid eating raw jalapeno peppers or products containing raw jalapeno peppers.
FDA also reiterated that all tomatoes currently in the marketplace are safe to eat. However, industry members are still awaiting responses from government agencies regarding why they have not yet officially cleared tomatoes from ever causing illness.
The Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, meanwhile, apparently is diminishing. The latest report of the onset of illness is July 4, 2008, according to data on the CDC's Web site.
This current jalapeno recall is different from a recall initiated this past weekend by Grande Produce of Hidalgo, Texas, relating to a different strain of Salmonella found on certain products.