More questions than answers in salmonella scare

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July 20, 2009 - 8:33 PM

Sean Gaffney

The Monitor

McALLEN — A local produce company continued recalling fresh cilantro Monday as investigators tried to figure out who bought the potentially salmonella-tainted salsa staple.

Just where the 104 15-pound crates of cilantro ended up remains unclear. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Monday that it could not provide a list of what restaurants or retailers might have bought the leafy green because most of the purchases at Sweet Superior Fruit LTD. were made with cash. It also did not say how much of the produce had been sold.

“A list of customers is not available,” Stephanie Kwisnek, a spokeswoman for the agency, wrote in an e-mail.

On Sunday, the agency disclosed that a routine test of imported produce uncovered that cilantro sold from July 13 to 16 in the 15-pound black plastic crates at the Sweet Superior Fruits’ facility at the McAllen Produce Terminal Market could be contaminated with salmonella, a food-borne bacteria that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections.

Company officials did not return calls seeking comment Monday. And a phone number for the company that the FDA urged consumers with questions to call went unanswered most of the day.

The facility at 2501 W. Military Highway was closed Monday afternoon. A woman, who answered the phone at the company late Monday, said no one would be available for comment until today.

While the source of the cilantro has not been disclosed, the produce was most likely grown in Mexico. A sign above the company‘s facility advertises Mexican-grown products.

No one has been sickened because of the cilantro, according to the FDA.

The local produce industry is watching the case closely, but so far does not fear a repeat of last summer when a salmonella outbreak and scare hurt sales, said John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association in Mission.

In 2008, jalapeños grown in Mexico and packed in McAllen sickened more than a thousand people. During a nearly two-month investigation, health officials at times recalled a host of other vegetables as it tried to determine what produce actually caused the outbreak.

Farmers and the produce industry were critical of the FDA at the time for not quickly determining the source and for issuing recalls and warnings for products that weren’t tainted.

“When there are problems, you have to have a very quick and effective trace back system so you can ferret out (what is contaminated and where it was grown),” McClung said. “This individual incident does not appear at this point to be one that is going to get a great deal of attention.”



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