Salmonella-suspect Mexican peppers still being sold in U.S.

Published 22 August 2008

The CDC and FDA now suspect the Mexican jalapeño peppers are the cause of the outbreak of salmonella poisoning which has sickened 1,434 people in the United States so far, but these peppers are still being sold in the to U.S., if for a lower price

Federal officials say fresh jalapeno and serrano peppers from Mexico pose a salmonella risk, but the peppers are still selling in the United States — and for much less than their U.S. rivals. Buyers tend to be small Hispanic grocers and mom and pop restaurants, while big supermarkets and restaurants shun the Mexican supply, distributors say. “Mexican peppers still are selling,” says Raul Ramirez, warehouse manager for Ramirez Bros., a Los Angeles-based distributor. “Our customers are asking for them.” Mexican peppers “are growing in prominence,” agrees Will Steele, CEO of Frontera Produce, a large importer of Mexican jalapenos. Frontera isn’t importing them from Mexico now because its buyers, large supermarket and restaurant chains, do not want them, Steele adds.

USA Today’s Julie Schmit writes that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned last month that consumers should avoid fresh jalapeno and serrano peppers from Mexico, after salmonella saintpaul was found on samples. Nationwide, 1,434 people have been sickened in the outbreak, the largest for food in more than a decade. New illnesses peaked in May and have slowed to a trickle. The latest new illness started 8 August, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Forty-pound boxes of U.S.-grown jalapenos sold at wholesale for $25 to $35 a box on Tuesday vs. $14 to $16 for Mexican ones, Steele says. Before the warning, U.S. and Mexican peppers cost about the same. Prices for U.S. ones are up. Fresh jalapenos are often used in fresh salsas. Cooked, canned, or pickled peppers are fine, the FDA says. Processing kills the bacteria.

Ramirez says about 25 percent of his Mexican pepper customers process them. Some importers test for salmonella, he says. In June, fresh tomatoes were considered the likely outbreak culprit. The focus turned to peppers in July but by then, “A lot of buyers didn’t really believe there was a threat,” says Ruben Fernandez, owner of Produce Express in San Antonio. He says he is distributing Mexican jalapeno peppers to smaller stores and restaurants of all kinds.

Many consumers and retailers may not be aware of the warning, says Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. Imported volumes are likely to be small, says John McClung of the Texas Produce Association. Mexico supplies most of the U.S.’s peppers in winter, but California, North Carolina, and others supply a lot in August, he says. The FDA has not banned the import of Mexican jalapenos and serranos, but it has increased testing at border checkpoints. In recent weeks, it has restricted pepper imports from twelve Mexican firms because of salmonella, but not necessarily the outbreak strain. Future shipments from those firms must test free of salmonella before the FDA will release them for sale.