Health & Family

Salmonella mystery persists

The government said Thursday the salmonella outbreak that sickened at least 1,440 people appears over, but its ultimate source may never be known, partly because of shortcomings in the nation's food safety system.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration said they found strong evidence to implicate jalapeno and serrano peppers, and a farm in Mexico, in the largest outbreak of foodborne illness in a decade. Investigators were unable to clear domestic and imported tomatoes, however, although the evidence against tomatoes is weaker.

The FDA also lifted its warning to avoid jalapeno and serrano peppers from Mexico. But officials pointedly said that doesn't guarantee another such outbreak can be prevented.

“None of us can provide a cast-iron guarantee that salmonella Saintpaul will not re-emerge,” said Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's food safety chief. “We have not identified the total source of this.”

FDA and CDC officials said several steps are needed to improve the safety of fresh produce, even as the government and medical community urge consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables for better nutrition.

Among those measures:

Standard procedures and more funding to allow state labs to test samples of suspected pathogens faster.

Congressional action to authorize the FDA to impose produce safety regulations.

And industry action to develop a faster system for tracing produce items suspected in an outbreak.

The CDC said the outbreak began in late April, and that by early August the number of new cases had fallen to levels considered normal. Most victims got sick in May and June. And there have been no new restaurant clusters of cases since early July.

That “is an important indication that this particular outbreak is over,” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of CDC's foodborne illness branch.

People were sickened in 43 states and Washington.