WASHINGTON - Investigators probing the salmonella outbreak that mysteriously keeps infecting Americans have expanded their hunt beyond tomatoes and are looking to see whether other produce may be responsible, federal health officials confirmed yesterday.
It was the strongest indication to date by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that weeks of focus on tomatoes as the culprit may have been a mistake, something that state health officials and other scientists increasingly fear.
The federal officials said tomatoes remain the primary suspect in the expanded investigation, but unspecified "new information" received over the weekend suggested that other produce commonly served with tomatoes could be the cause.
"The tomato trail is still hot. It's a question of whether other products are getting hotter," said Dr. David Acheson, associate FDA commissioner for foods.
The FDA, CDC and health departments in New Mexico and Texas, which began targeting tomatoes in late May, are increasingly on the defensive, more than 11 weeks after the outbreak began.
They are facing criticism from health officials in other states, produce industry executives, independent food-safety scientists and members of Congress that the investigation has been mishandled.
A total of 869 people nationwide, including 29 in Maryland, have been infected by Salmonella saintpaul, which causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, according to the CDC's latest update on the outbreak, believed to be the largest of its kind in the U.S.
Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, said produce other than tomatoes could be causing the outbreak.
Tainted irrigation water can contaminate jalapeno peppers, for example, just as it could contaminate tomatoes, he said.
The hunt for a new culprit probably means that an immediate resolution is unlikely, food safety specialists acknowledged.
According to the FDA, investigators will first try to find another likely suspect, through a statistical analysis of interviews with those who have been infected, before trying to trace it back to the source.
Lingering uncertainty about what caused the outbreak has worried consumers, angered the produce industry and prompted a House panel that has been examining the government's food safety system to plan a public hearing this month.
"We are working to understand why certain produce commodities, such as tomatoes, are difficult to track and trace and whether our existing system for doing so is adequate," said a spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee.
In a conference call with reporters, Acheson wouldn't specify what other produce is under suspicion.
Health officials involved in the investigation have told The Sun that they include jalapeno peppers, cilantro and green onions. All can be found in salsa, guacamole or other commonly eaten Mexican dishes containing tomatoes.
According to state health officials, Mexican dishes are a particular focus because most clusters of infected people ate at Mexican restaurants.
Presence of a contaminant in the dishes, which contain tomatoes, would explain the large numbers of those who reported eating tomatoes.
Produce industry officials, up in arms that a popular product with $2.3 billion in yearly sales may be tarnished, fear the new but undefined turn in the investigation will dampen consumers' appetites for other fruits and vegetables.
"If they say it's not tomatoes, then how many other commodities will be affected?" said Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Association, whose California members have stopped producing tomatoes because prices and demand are too low. "We have a lot of reasons to be angry."
The FDA's Acheson called on Congress to give his agency new powers that would force industry to institute quality controls and reduce the chance of contamination.
"Things definitely have to get better. No one in public health and no one in industry can be satisfied how this outbreak was handled," said Amy Philpott, a spokeswoman for the United Fresh Produce Association, an organization that represents growers, suppliers, retailers and restaurants.