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CDC Blames Fresh: Ignores Horticultural Probabilities

The CDC, FDA and state health departments are not making many public announcements but they are leaking information like sieves.

The public announcement by CDC is that the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak continues to sicken people. To date, there are 943 illnesses in 40 states, the District of Columbia and Canada. The latest onset of illness is June 26, 2008.

The key official announcement from CDC is this:

Recently, many clusters of illnesses have been identified in Texas and other states among persons who ate at restaurants. These clusters have led us to broaden the investigation to be sure that it encompasses food items that are commonly consumed with tomatoes.

In a front page article in The Wall Street Journal, claiming the focus of the government’s efforts is now moving to jalapenos, the switch from tomatoes is explained this way:

The CDC is focusing on 29 “clusters” of illnesses, Mr. Nowak said. A cluster is created when two or more people become sick within a 10-day period after eating at the same restaurant. Most of the restaurants serve Mexican food, and most of them are not chains, Mr. Nowak said.

While Mexican restaurants use large quantities of tomatoes, so do other types — Italian and fast-food restaurants, for example. Yet virtually none of those types of restaurants has been associated with a large percentage of illness clusters, the official said. That has led to the focus on salsa — and in particular on jalapenos, medium-sized chile peppers grown in Mexico and parts of the Southwestern United States.

CNN is reporting that the US will “halt the shipment of ingredients common to Mexican cuisine from Mexico to the United States” starting Monday. Tommy Thompson, former Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which controls both FDA and CDC, has been briefed on the situation and he explained the intent:

“…the plan involves intercepting food samples at the border and sending them to laboratories to examine them for possible salmonella or E. coli.”

No official announcements have been made, but the intent is said to include holding cilantro, jalapeno peppers, Serrano peppers, scallions and bulb onions at the border.

Three things are unclear:

  1. If the CDC and FDA think this step necessary for protecting public health, why are they waiting until Monday? Is it possible that decisions on public health are being made to avoid inconveniencing federal employees?


  2. How long will the tests take and will negative tests result in the product mean the product is free to enter the US?


  3. All these products are grown in America as well as Mexico. Just because the restaurants are Mexican doesn’t mean the food source is Mexican. Will similar restrictions be applied to domestic producers?


Although we are told that jalapeno peppers are conducive to the growth of salmonella, the long term of this outbreak now stretching seventy five (75) days and growing is making any fresh product increasingly implausible as a source for the outbreak.

Growers we have consulted in this matter say a typical field of jalapeno peppers is completely picked in 40 days. If we assume the jalapeno is at fault, the inspectors will be looking for jalapenos from a field in continuous production and exporting to the US for eighty five (85) days. Though not impossible, this is highly unlikely and would be easier to find by looking directly rather than hoping to find a contaminated pepper to track back.

The longer this goes on the less likely a farm-based source is plausible. We would look for a manufactured product. These products have a continuous source of production that lends itself to a long outbreak. The manufactured products used in salsa directly, namely lime juice and jarred garlic, are biologically not likely vectors for salmonella growth.

We suggested fresh salsa distributed to foodservice and deli departments as being plausible. Bill Marler, the plaintiff’s indispensible resource in food borne illness litigation, reports on his web site cases of severe gastronomical distress related to tortillas, and Europe’s Rapid Alert System has previously found Salmonella in tortillas.

We decided to run this special alert as we have many readers who export from Mexico or import to the United States from Mexico. We wanted to warn them to make cautious judgments about sending product to the border until the situation is clarified.

We also write because over this July 4th weekend, in which we celebrate our nation’s independence from the dictates of arbitrary power, we wanted to call for the establishment of procedures to restrict the arbitrary discretion of CDC and FDA.

We now see that executives in these agencies are casual enough to destroy people’s property — to crush a whole industry — without seriously studying the consumption data and noting as simple a thing as that few people were getting sick at fast food restaurants that are enormous users of tomatoes.

Now they may be preparing to destroy the jalapeno pepper industry and other fresh produce segments.

This is madness, and done on nothing but their own hunch represents a kind of unconstitutional taking-of-property without compensation.

On this 4th of July weekend, we should remember that we did not reject the tyranny of George III only to see our right to pursue happiness snatched from us by the careless and arbitrary tyranny of FDA and CDC.

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