"We have a smoking gun, it appears," Lonnie King, a director at the Centers for Disease Control, said yesterday.
The discovery of the outbreak strain on a farm does not answer all of the questions confronting investigators. But it will improve their chances of stopping the outbreak, which has sickened more than 1,300 people since April. It also gets them closer to a full explanation of an outbreak that stumped the nation's most experienced disease detectives and drew criticism from tomato growers and Congress about the FDA and CDC's handling of the case.
Lawmakers yesterday began the first of two hearings on what went wrong in the investigation, which was initially focused on tomatoes, and later expanded to include jalapeño and serrano peppers. They had summoned top FDA and CDC officials to testify.
Anyone expecting a grilling was disappointed. Almost as soon as he took his seat in front of the microphone, the FDA's top food safety official, David Acheson, went off script, starting not with his prepared testimony but with news of the Salmonella saintpaul finding in Mexico, information he said he had learned just two hours before the hearing.
The discovery did not let the FDA and the CDC off the hook entirely. Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), who chairs the House subcommittee on horticulture and organic agriculture, asked Acheson to get back to the panel with answers to several questions, including when he first heard CDC officials suspected jalapeño peppers were making people sick.
Investigators did not look into whether jalapeño and serrano peppers could be making people sick until early July when the illness count kept rising despite a nationwide warning against eating raw red plum, Roma and vineless red round tomatoes.
The FDA recently lifted the tomato warning, saying tomatoes now on the market are safe. But by then, tomato growers had incurred more than $100 million in losses.
Investigators have yet to find a contaminated tomato, and many growers assert that tomatoes were never involved. FDA and CDC officials, however, continued to insist that tomatoes and jalapeño peppers could have spread the bacteria if they were contaminated on the same farm or if one cross-contaminated the other somewhere in the distribution chain.
The discovery of Salmonella saintpaul in both jalapeño and serrano peppers partly vindicated proponents of that theory. Acheson told lawmakers yesterday that investigators may still find a packing facility or warehouse where tomatoes and jalapeño and serrano peppers crossed paths.
"We know [the salmonella] was on two [produce items]; it could easily have been on three," Acheson said. "It is certainly plausible that tomatoes were responsible for the early phases of [the outbreak]."
Investigators still have a lot to sort out, starting with the relationships between the farm in Nuevo Leon where the contaminated water and peppers were found and another farm in Tamaulipas that supplied tainted jalapeños to Agricola Zaragoza, a small distributor in Texas. So far the only connection is a packing facility in Nuevo Leon. It bought peppers from both farms and supplied Agricola Zaragoza.
Investigators are figuring out where peppers and tomatoes from the Nuevo Leon farm were shipped to, Acheson said, and awaiting the results of lab tests of samples from the Tamaulipas farm.
It's possible that peppers were contaminated by irrigation water on one farm, then sent to a packing facility where they contaminated other produce.
So far, samples from the packing facility that connects the two farms and the Texas distributor have not contained the outbreak strain, Acheson said. The packing facility handles jalapeño and serrano peppers and tomatoes.