WASHINGTON — Food-safety investigators said Wednesday that they'd found a contaminated pepper sample on a Mexican ranch, further pinpointing at least one of the sources for a salmonella outbreak that's poisoned consumers across the nation and roiled the produce industry.
In what the Food and Drug Administration termed "a key breakthrough," officials told a House of Representatives subcommittee that they'd found salmonella traces on serrano peppers and irrigation water at a ranch in Nuevo Leon. The discovery follows last week's tracing of the salmonella Saintpaul strain to jalapeno peppers grown on another Mexican ranch.
"Now we have a smoking gun, it appears," Dr. Lonnie King of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the House Horticulture and Organic Agriculture Subcommittee.
While no tainted tomatoes have been detected during the recent outbreak, and the FDA has lifted an earlier consumer warning about them, officials declined Wednesday to exonerate tomatoes completely. They may not be a formal suspect, but they can't yet be declared innocent, a state of limbo that infuriates farmers and some lawmakers.
"The possibility certainly exists that there was more than one commodity" contaminated, FDA Associate Commissioner Dr. David Acheson stressed, adding that the investigation "has been one of the most complex" in recent history.
For instance, also tomatoes were grown on one of the Mexican ranches linked to contaminated peppers. The peppers and tomatoes were shipped through the same distribution channels.
The federal investigators presented their findings, including the news of unexpected progress, at a hearing that otherwise was devoted to allegations of food safety shortcomings. The hearing was one of three devoted to salmonella this week, potentially building momentum for the California and Florida farmers who want compensation and the lawmakers who want a regulatory overhaul.
"You could describe our current food-safety system as 'outbreak roulette,' " said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif. "One spin of the outbreak wheel, and your industry may be bankrupt, your loved ones sickened."
More than 1,300 U.S. residents have been sickened since April in the latest salmonella outbreak. At least 252 people have been hospitalized in 43 states, and two people have died.
Texas leads the nation in recent cases, with 495 as of Monday. Florida, by contrast, has only reported three cases, and California 11.
The tomato industry, too, has been sickened, at least indirectly. Florida grower Anthony J. DiMare told the House subcommittee that "our industry was shaken to the core" last month when the FDA issued a broad advisory warning against eating certain types of tomatoes.
Florida lawmakers already have introduced one bill offering $100 million in compensation for business lost due to FDA warnings. Henry Giclas, the vice president of the Western Growers Association, pegged California tomato losses alone at $30 million, and Cardoza suggested that total industry losses could exceed $300 million.
"There was permanent damage that was done to the markets as a result of early errors in the investigation," said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla.
While it's popular among farmers and rural lawmakers, the compensation proposal raises alarms elsewhere on Capitol Hill. Some fear that it could set a costly precedent that would chill federal regulators from doing their work.
"We're trying to protect the public health," Acheson noted, adding that "there was a very clear, methodical, scientific process" used in issuing the original tomato warning.
The investigators further stressed the complications in tracing food-borne illnesses. They're disconcertingly common, with an estimated 325,000 U.S. residents being hospitalized annually and 5,000 dying from food-borne illnesses.
The latest salmonella outbreak has proved particularly difficult. Acheson said the illnesses had occurred sporadically rather than in big clusters, and they've been linked to small restaurants rather than big chains, which would make tracking easier.
Changing food safety laws could prove even more complicated than tracing the disease.
Putnam and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., have introduced a food-safety overhaul bill that would compel foreign producers to meet U.S. safety standards. Another House member, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said she'd been trying for at least six years to push an approach that strengthened the FDA's power to recall contaminated food. Cardoza championed yet another idea Wednesday, to give the agriculture industry itself more clout in setting standards.