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FDA Says it's OK to Eat Raw Mexican Jalapeno or Serrano Peppers

Aug. 28, 2008 -- The Salmonella saintpaul outbreak first tied to tomatoes and then to jalapeno and serrano peppers appears to be over, says the CDC.

In light of that news, the FDA says it's OK to eat raw jalapeno or serrano peppers grown, harvested, or packed in Mexico.

The salmonella outbreak, which began in April, sickened at least 1,442 people in 43 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada. Those cases include 286 people who were hospitalized and two people whose deaths might have been linked to salmonella infection.

Most of cases happened in May, June, or early July; now the numbers appear to be back to what "we would typically expect to see this time of year," Robert Tauxe, MD, MPH, deputy director of the CDC's Division of Foodborne, Bacterial, and Mycotic Diseases, said today at a news conference.

Jalapeno peppers were "a major source of contamination," and serrano peppers were "also a source," Tauxe says.

The FDA found the outbreak strain on a jalapeno pepper grown in Mexico and on a serrano pepper and in irrigation water on a second Mexican farm. But the precise source of the salmonella hasn't been identified, so Tauxe says officials are "remaining vigilant" to make sure the outbreak really is over.

Tomatoes, which were the leading suspects early on in the investigation, were a "possible source" of contamination, Tauxe says. The CDC stands by its earlier findings -- based on interviews with patients and healthy people -- that tomatoes were strongly linked to the outbreak, at least in the early stages of the outbreak. No lab tests ever turned up the outbreak strain in tomatoes.

The CDC's early interviews with patients asked about green bell peppers, red bell peppers, or other types of peppers but did not specifically ask about jalapeno or serrano peppers, which haven't been linked to outbreaks in the past, Tauxe notes.

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