N.C. food investigators said Friday their search for the source of a national salmonella outbreak has instead uncovered a different strain of the bacteria.
Joe Reardon, director of the N.C. Agriculture Department's Food and Drug Protection Division, told The Associated Press that testing found the salmonella strain oranienburg at a Charlotte-area food supplier. He said that strain has been confirmed in both North Carolina and Texas, where it has been linked to the supplier Grande Produce.
Reardon said it's not yet known whether anyone has gotten sick from the oranienburg strain. But he said officials are looking into the possibility, and trying to determine whether food tainted with the strain has been distributed into other states.
State health officials launched a search of two Charlotte-area businesses – the restaurant Cantina 1511 and food supplier El Campo Produce – last week after inspectors confirmed multiple cases of salmonella among patrons. But while searching for the saintpaul strain, which sickened those at the restaurant, the tests also found the oranienburg strain at the food supplier.
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“It's extremely interesting,” Reardon said. “We went in looking for one thing and found another.”
Efforts to reach El Campo Produce by telephone have been unsuccessful.
The state launched a recall Thursday of fresh jalapeno peppers and avocados after testing found salmonella on them, and they've been visiting about 130 small stores around the state to ensure the produce is taken off the shelf.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified more than 1,200 cases of salmonella poisoning nationwide – from the strain saintpaul – including 23 in North Carolina. Texas has reported 474 confirmed cases while Illinois has 113. Reardon said there are no confirmed cases of oranienburg sickness, although he said officials are on the lookout.
Reardon said the finding could help officials identify the original source of the outbreak. They're still testing additional items from the suppliers, looking for signs of both strains of salmonella and any links between the two.
“It could be that there are some parallels here – through either growing practices, harvesting practices or even transportation practices,” Reardon said. “You just don't know.”
Salmonella illnesses are common. North Carolina, for example, has about 2,000 cases each year, usually from raw eggs or undercooked chicken. But this year's outbreak, apparently from produce distributed around the country, has become the nation's largest food borne outbreak in at least a decade.
The salmonella saintpaul outbreak has affected 42 states, with illnesses beginning as early as April 10 and some starting July 4. Federal health officials initially suspected tomatoes as a source but said Thursday that they are now OK to eat. The federal government is still urging caution when it comes to fresh serrano and jalapeno peppers, but it hasn't given any warnings on avocados.