By Steven Reinberg
THURSDAY, Aug. 28 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. health officials declared Thursday that the nationwide salmonella outbreak has ended and that the consumer advisory against eating raw jalapeno and serrano peppers grown in Mexico has been lifted.
"Based on the available information and reports, it appears that this outbreak is over," Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's division of foodborne, bacterial and mycotic diseases, said during a teleconference.
The CDC's announcement was based on the falling number of new cases since early July, Tauxe said. "By early August, the number of cases was down to the number of cases we would expect to see anyway in the absence of a major outbreak. There are some cases of this infection that occur every year," he added.
The last cluster of infections associated with restaurants occurred in early July, Tauxe said. "This is also an important indication that this particular outbreak is over," he said.
The outbreak, the largest outbreak of food-borne illness in the United States in the past decade, sickened 1,442 people, hospitalized 286, and was implicated in two deaths between April and August. It was originally thought to be caused by tomatoes grown in Florida or Mexico. Eventually, the outbreak was traced to two farms in Mexico that grew jalapeno and serrano peppers, according to a report in the Aug. 29 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lifted the warning on eating raw jalapeno and serrano peppers from Mexico on Thursday because the outbreak appeared over.
Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for foods, said at the teleconference that none of the peppers associated with the outbreak are in circulation and that the agency has completed its field investigation.
The preliminary results of the investigation showed that jalapeno peppers were a major source of contamination and that serrano peppers were also a source, Tauxe said. "In addition, tomatoes were possibly a source, particularly early in the outbreak," he said.
Since the outbreak began, the FDA has increased its surveillance and sampling of produce from Mexico, Acheson said.
"As a result of that initiative, the FDA has identified shipments of produce from Mexico which tested positive for strains of salmonella, other than the salmonella saintpaul strain," Acheson said. "In cases where contamination was discovered on imported produce, the FDA has refused the entry and has imposed appropriate import controls on a shipper-specific basis to prevent the entry of contaminated product into the U.S. market."
To help prevent and control future outbreaks, the FDA is asking Congress to give it the authority to require "industry-to-institute" mandatory preventative controls of high-risk foods, Acheson said. "These foods include certain types of fresh produce that have been repeatedly associated with adverse health events," he said.
The agency is also calling upon the food industry to develop better tracking systems to identify more efficiently the distribution of produce, Acheson said.
Salmonella is a bacteria that can cause bloody diarrhea in humans. Some 40,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported in the United States each year, although the CDC estimates that because milder cases aren't diagnosed or reported, the actual number of infections may be 30 or more times greater. Approximately 600 people die each year after being infected.
However, the strain of salmonella saintpaul involved in this summer's outbreak had been previously considered rare. In 2007, according to the CDC, there were only six people infected in the country during April through June.
For more on the salmonella outbreak, visit the FDA.
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