WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors have found samples of Salmonella bacteria at a farm in Mexico that produces serrano peppers, officials said on Wednesday.
They matched the strain that has sickened more than 1,300 people across the United States and parts of Canada, David Acheson, FDA associate commissioner for food protection, told a congressional hearing.
“FDA found Salmonella saintpaul in a sample of serrano peppers and a sample of water from a farm in Mexico,” FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek confirmed.
The Mexican government rejected the FDA tests and said the sample was from stagnant water in a tank holding rainwater, not water used to irrigate peppers.
“What they took was a sample from soil after the harvest. That is not scientifically valid in any part of the world,” Enrique Sanchez, the Agriculture Ministry’s director of food health, told Reuters in Mexico City.
The Mexican Embassy in Washington earlier said the government had taken the precautionary measure of suspending exports of produce from the company suspected of being the origin of the outbreak.
Mexico expects that the two countries can “jointly pinpoint the precise source of the Salmonella saintpaul outbreak soon, so those producers not associated with it can be cleared to resume business, in a manner which ensures the health and well-being of consumers,” an embassy statement said.
Mexican officials had repeatedly denied that the outbreak, originally blamed on tomatoes but later traced to peppers, could be traced to Mexican farms.
U.S. congressional investigators have accused the FDA of mishandling the case.
Acheson told a hearing of the House Horticulture and Organic Agriculture Subcommittee that the FDA found the unusual strain at the Mexican farm and outlined the difficulty of tracing a food poisoning outbreak to perishable fresh fruits and vegetables.
On Monday, Colorado health officials said they had found a Salmonella-tainted jalapeno pepper in the home of someone sickened in the outbreak, and a tainted pepper was found in a shipment of jalapenos from Mexico last week.
Investigators had focused early in the probe on tomatoes as a possible culprit.
Last week, regulators lifted their warning on tomatoes, not because they were cleared from suspicion but because any that could have been contaminated would have spoiled and been discarded by that time.
Mexican officials have been angered by the FDA’s statements.
Last week, Enrique Sanchez, director of Mexico’s National Sanitation and Farm Food Quality Service, called the decision “arbitrary” and said it could have an “enormous” harmful impact on the local jalapeno industry.
Salmonella poisoning, which causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, is very common, with 40,000 cases and 400 deaths each year in the United States alone.
Reporting by Maggie Fox and Adriana Barrera; editing by Mohammad Zargham