DEBORAH AMOS, host:
When officials at the Food and Drug Administration announced yesterday they'd found salmonella on a Mexican-grown jalapeno pepper, it meant investigators finally had a solid lead on a trail that seemed to have grown cold. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on how the focus on investigation shifted from tomatoes to jalapenos.
ALLISON AUBREY: When state health officials in New Mexico first picked up on multiple people getting sick from the same sub-type of salmonella, called Salmonella Saintpaul, way back in April, they reported the cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
There, officials analyzing information coming in through an electronic surveillance system began to see that in pockets around the country, many more states were seeing an unusual increase in cases of Salmonella Saintpaul.
As soon as they knew they had an outbreak on their hands, investigators began interviewing sick people, asking them in detail what they'd eaten prior to getting sick. And in many cases, people reported eating tomatoes.
Now if you're thinking, okay, everyone eats tomatoes. What you should understand is that the sick people were eating them at much higher rates than their healthy neighbors, who officials also interviewed.
Now, three months later, with the first conclusive match of Salmonella Saintpaul coming from a jalapeno pepper, not a tomato, the FDA's lead point-person on the investigation, Dr. David Acheson, says it doesn't mean his agency got it wrong.
Dr. DAVID ACHESON (Food and Drug Administration): The original part of the outbreak, the first scientific indication showed a very clear association with tomatoes, and there is nothing to indicate that that association was incorrect or inappropriate.
AUBREY: Last week, when the FDA lifted its consumer warnings on eating tomatoes, Acheson explained that none of the farms harvesting tomatoes during the early part of the outbreak were still shipping their product, and that all of the tomatoes in markets now had come from areas that were not implicated.
At this point in the investigation, Acheson explained that they'd learned more from a few clusters of people who'd been exposed to salmonella at the same time and same place, presumably at a restaurant, and they found these people reported eating fresh jalapeno peppers.
When the FDA dispatched its team of investigators to various points along the distribution chain where the fresh peppers had passed, they knew they needed a direct match. To make that definitive link, they had to find Salmonella Saintpaul on a pepper, which is what happened yesterday.
David Acheson made the announcement during a late-afternoon press-conference call.
Dr. ACHESON: FDA wants to inform those on the call that we've had a significant break in the salmonella investigation. One of the jalapeno pepper samples has tested positive as a genetic match with the outbreak serotype, Salmonella Saintpaul.
AUBREY: So now, as consumers have been warned to avoid eating fresh jalapenos, the job of the investigators continues. One contaminated pepper does not solve the whole case. The goal is to continue following the production chain from the distribution center in Texas, where the pepper was tested, back to the farm in Mexico where it was grown, and points in between.
Dr. ACHESON: Because it enables us to ultimately, hopefully, to pinpoint the source of the contamination which has caused the outbreak.
AUBREY: Since the outbreak began in April, a total of 1,251 people have gotten sick, and officials at the CDC say they do not believe the outbreak has ended. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.
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