They warned consumers not to eat fresh jalapeno peppers and products made with them, such as some salsas or salads. The alert does not include processed, cooked or pickled jalapenos.
Health officials consider this an important step in discovering the source of the salmonella outbreak in the U.S., the largest ever recorded. The first case were recorded in April and the most recent as late as July 4.
However, officials emphasized at a press conference here that the investigation was far from over and that the jalapeno pepper finding also does not clear tomatoes as culprits. Officials did say last week that all tomatoes now in U.S. grocery bins were safe to eat.
"While this one sample doesn't yet give us the whole story, this genetic match is a very important break in the case," said Dr. David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food protection at the Food and Drug Administration. "This enables us to focus our investigation on the production chain that will allow us, hopefully, to pinpoint the source of the contamination (that) has caused the outbreak."
Since April, some 1,251 people in 43 states have been infected by the strain Salmonella saintpaul. Originally, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control considered tomatoes to be the source of the outbreak and said Monday that there was still a "very clear association" with tomatoes. However, they have lifted their warning on tomatoes because all those that might have been contaminated in April or May are out of the food system, Acheson said.
What's still unclear is how -- and exactly where -- the single jalapeno pepper, grown in Mexico, may have been contaminated on its trail from farm to distributor. Moreover, health officials are unsure if there was any cross-contamination along the route that might have put, say, tomatoes and jalapeno peppers in contact with each other.
The tainted jalapeno pepper was found at the Agricola Zaragosa plant in McAllen, Texas, not far from the Mexican border. The company has agreed to recall all peppers though the FDA said there were no signs of contamination elsewhere in the plant.
Health officials said the plant was a relatively small one but declined to disclose where and how far it might have distributed its jalapeno peppers.
"The contamination could have occurred anywhere from the farm all the way to that facility," Acheson said.
"We're pulling all the stops out to push this investigation hard and fast to narrow this," Acheson said, a recognition that the peak jalapeno harvesting season is quickly approaching. "I recognize that there's a need to narrow this as quickly as possible and that is exactly what we're trying to do."
As for last spring's tomatoes, Dr. Robert Tauxe, a deputy director at the CDC, said the agency has investigated clusters of cases of people who all ate at the same restaurants or group of restaurants and interviewed others as to how they handled produce in their homes but has come up with little definitive information.
"We will not be able to determine ultimately whether tomatoes were part of this or not," he said. The jalapeno pepper probe, combined with other information from the trace-backs, "may give us a chance to clarify the importance of tomatoes."