The Food and Drug Administration said Monday that it found a jalapeno pepper contaminated with the same strain of salmonella driving an outbreak that's sickened thousands and mystified investigators for two months.
The agency also said all consumers should avoid eating fresh jalapeno peppers and foods made with them, including fresh salsa, broadening a warning previously directed at people most at risk the very old and the very young.
David Acheson, the FDA's top official for food safety, said the agency hit on a "significant break" by finding the contaminated pepper in a Texas distribution center.
The pepper originated in Mexico, a big supplier of jalapenos to the U.S. Acheson warned that it may not have been contaminated in Mexico and could have been contaminated while in transit or in the Texas facility.
The distributor, Agricola Zaragoza, in McAllen, Texas, is recalling its peppers, the FDA said. Calls to Agricola were not returned. The FDA described the company as relatively small and said it may also distribute tomatillos, which are husklike tomatoes. The FDA could not say how widespread Agricola's distribution chain is.
The finding doesn't end the investigation but will enable investigators to better focus on where the problem started, says Acheson, the associate commissioner for foods.
The ongoing outbreak, which began in April, has led to 1,251 reported illnesses. Health officials believe many cases go unreported.
The FDA's goal now is to examine Agricola's distribution records to see where the peppers came from and where they were distributed.
In early June, the FDA said some varieties of tomatoes were likely behind the outbreak. While Acheson says tomatoes on the market now are safe to eat, investigators say tomatoes may still have caused some illnesses.
The tomato industry lost millions in consumer sales after the FDA's first warning. The same fate is likely to befall the jalapeno industry. Even East Coast producers, which don't distribute through Texas, could be hurt by the national do-not-eat warning, which was also extended to restaurants.
Given the unknowns about when and where the Texas-found pepper became contaminated - and whether it crossed paths with other peppers that could have then become contaminated - the FDA says it cannot narrow its warning.
"This is not about punishing anybody. It's about protecting public health," Acheson said in a conference call with reporters.
Processed jalapenos are not affected by the warning. FDA says high-risk consumers, including the young and old, should also continue to avoid serrano peppers, another suspect in the outbreak.