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Setting The Record Straight
On AP’s Mexican Pepper Story

A widely distributed AP story entitled, Mexican Peppers Posed Problem Long Before Outbreak, claimed that the FDA Knew peppers from Mexico were a big problem long before the recent Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak:

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Federal inspectors at U.S. border crossings repeatedly turned back filthy, disease-ridden shipments of peppers from Mexico in the months before a salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,400 people was finally traced to Mexican chilies.

Yet no larger action was taken. Food and Drug Administration officials insisted as recently as last week that they were surprised by the outbreak because Mexican peppers had not been spotted as a problem before.

But an Associated Press analysis of FDA records found that peppers and chilies were consistently the top Mexican crop rejected by border inspectors for the last year.

Since January alone, 88 shipments of fresh and dried chilies were turned away. Ten percent were contaminated with salmonella. In the last year, 8 percent of the 158 intercepted shipments of fresh and dried chilies had salmonella….

We immediately became suspicious upon reading this article. Although the Pundit has been interviewed by several AP reporters over the years and usually finds them to have tough standards — in fact being unwilling to run with stories without solid evidence — this piece seemed incomplete and sloppy.

All the logical questions weren’t raised or answered:

  1. Referring to “Mexican chilis” evades the crucial question: Dried, canned or fresh?
  2. Were these tested shipments a result of random sampling or were these shipments selected for enhanced scrutiny because they came from suspect producers?
  3. Were the numbers goosed by intense inspection after the FDA became concerned about Mexican produce, in general, and chili peppers, in particular?

An exploration of FDA’s OASIS Records points to a few obvious issues:

  1. AP included dried peppers and fresh peppers, even though dried peppers were never implicated in this outbreak. And most of the rejections of filthy product are for dried, not fresh, jalapenos.
  2. A good chunk if not the majority of the positive salmonella findings in peppers were in JULY — after FDA stepped up inspection and testing of chili peppers.
  3. A good chunk of the fresh Mexican chili peppers rejected also took place in July.
  4. The story says peppers were the most rejected item, even though FDA never told the reporters (and it says this in the story) what percentage the rejected items make up of all chili peppers inspected.

We’ve not been afraid to critique the FDA when it was in the wrong, but this all seemed pretty suspicious, so we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Sebastian Cianci
FDA spokesperson

Q: The AP article, Mexican Peppers Posed Problems Long Before Outbreak, appears to unfairly disparage the FDA. There is data in the AP article that doesn’t make sense. Could you clarify and correct any confusion or misinformation? We would like to set the record straight.

For example, AP reports that since January, 88 shipments of fresh and dried chilies were turned away, and ten percent were contaminated with Salmonella. How much was fresh? Were these shipments targeted based on known problems beforehand? Ten percent of random samples would certainly be extraordinary, since fresh peppers are not known as a problem for Salmonella. Do these numbers correspond to increased testing due to the outbreak?

A: The number of shipments that were reported by AP, 88, appears to be the number of lines of Mexican pepper products refused in 2008, according to our refusal report. As of the date of the article, the refusal reports covered January through July 2008. It covered all types of pepper products including dried and canned in addition to fresh.

Q: What constitutes a line?

A: We talk about lines of shipments. I can give you the line breakout — A line is an import entry. Suppose you have a shipment of bananas, that’s a line. A shipment of bananas and oranges will be two lines. If avocados are included, that’s three lines. A line might be five crates or half a shipment of something.

Q: So could you detail the 88 lines that AP is referencing?

A: 29 lines were detained as a result of filth or sanitation issues. 20 lines were refused based on Low Acid Canned Food Registration (LACFR) or process issues. 26 lines were refused based on pesticide residue violations. 3 lines were refused based on Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) violations.

10 lines were refused based on the presence of Salmonella. Of the 10 Salmonella refusals, 3 of those were dried peppers, and 7 were fresh peppers. FDA actually sampled eight of these 10 shipments. The other two were detained without physical examination because the firms were already on import alert 99-19, which covers processed pepper products. We see them coming in and reject them.

Of these 8 that we did sample, one was dried pepper and subsequently added to import alert 99-19. Seven were fresh peppers coming from six different firms. Three of those firms were placed on import alert 99-23. The names of these three farms were: Zargoza, Consuelo, and Fernando Ruy Sanchez. The other three did not meet the DWPE [Detention Without Physical Examination] criteria.

Q: What is that criteria?

A: The product still gets rejected but the firm doesn’t get placed on DWPE since only one sample came up positive for salmonella. When you have raw agricultural product, there is always something difficult to control that could have contaminated it. The example we give is a bird dropping, which is an isolated incident. If two samples come up positive it will land on DWPE.

Q: When were these positives on fresh peppers discovered? Was this during the period that FDA ramped up testing of fresh peppers as part of the expanding outbreak investigation?

A: There is always baseline sampling FDA does. When the outbreak was first discovered in the beginning of June, we started increasing sampling, including on tomatoes. In July, when it seemed the cause of the outbreak was something more than tomatoes, we augmented the increased testing for jalapenos, serranos, cilantro and basil.

The seven fresh pepper shipments refused for Salmonella occurred this summer — all those samples were collected at the time of increased testing in response to the Salmonellosis outbreak related to the Salmonella Saintpaul pathogen. We were looking for Salmonella Saintpaul in the testing we did this summer. In the process we saw other Salmonella strains.

If you look at the import alert 99-23 in July/August for basil, cilantro, jalapenos and serranos, we were trying to target Saintpaul, but we found other Salmonella strains too so companies got put on import alert.

Q: For perspective, how many shipments came in and what percent were tested? What was the rate of testing compared to your baseline sampling?

A: We don’t know how many lines came through during that time frame. The key thing is that the seven fresh pepper salmonellas came from our targeted samples. During our focused testing we did find other types of salmonella, and we also found positives in domestic product as well.

We don’t know what AP is referencing when it says 158 intercepted shipments in the last year so we can’t respond to that.

Basically the AP reporter seems to have not understood the data or the complexity of the industry and leapt to an unsupportable conclusion. The Associated Press should investigate how such a poorly reported story ever got through its fact-checking process.

On this one the FDA is in the clear… there was no “smoking gun” of pre-outbreak data that should have made FDA suspicious of fresh jalapenos and Serrano peppers from Mexico.

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