Businesses take precautions after salmonella found on jalapenos

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 | 5:30 p.m. CDT; updated 7:03 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 23, 2008

COLUMBIA — After the FDA’s announcement Monday to avoid raw jalapeno peppers, Columbia grocery stores and restaurants are taking steps to make sure their peppers are safe for consumers.

Monday's warning came after the FDA found a strain of salmonella bacteria on a single Mexican-grown jalapeno pepper handled in Texas. Authorities still don’t know where the pepper became tainted: on the farm; in the McAllen, Texas, plant; or at some stop in between, such as a packing house.

In Columbia, Lori Willis, director of communications for Schnucks, said the company’s grocery stores here are not affected by the FDA warning because they have a safe distribution center in California. Willis added that Schnucks has a five-member food safety team that follows FDA announcements and advises the company on its produce.

Wal-Mart stores are taking similar steps, according to a press release from the company.

“We are working closely with our jalapeno suppliers to monitor this issue,” the release said. “At this time, Wal-Mart stores have not been impacted by Agricola Zaragoza, Inc.’s recall of jalapeno peppers.”

Some businesses have taken more drastic action. Gerbes grocery stores have removed jalapeno peppers from their shelves entirely as a precaution.

For local jalapeno pepper farmers, the tainted peppers are of little concern, Columbia Farmers’ Market manager Caroline Todd said. She said that because the produce is only handled by the farmer and does not go through a distribution center, there is no concern about the quality of jalapeno peppers grown by local farmers.

“If people are unsure of the quality of a pepper at their local grocery stores, they should consider shopping at the farmers market because it is all grown locally and customers can directly ask the farmer any questions they have,” Todd said.

Restaurants are also taking precautions with their jalapenos. Chipotle has begun grilling its peppers at 165 degrees or more in order to remove the possibly harmful bacteria, according to the company’s Web site. Both Chipotle restaurants in Columbia are following the company-wide policy, workers said, and plan to start serving raw peppers again once they are told it is safe.

Hilary Samuel, a cashier at El Rancho, said the restaurant is not affected by the salmonella scare because it buys all its produce locally.

But El Maguey, another Mexican restaurant, has decided to stop using jalapeno peppers in dishes because it gets its produce through Cisqo, a national food distributor, cook Oliver Delgado said. Cisqo is currently not receiving any shipments of jalapeno peppers, he said.

For now, the government is strengthening its earlier precaution against hot peppers to a full-blown warning that no one should eat fresh jalapenos — or products such as fresh salsa made from them — until it can better pinpoint where tainted ones may have been sold.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 1,250 cases of salmonella food poisoning in 42 states since the beginning of the outbreak. Though it isn't over yet, the CDC said last week that the outbreak appeared to be slowing and has confirmed just 14 additional cases since then. The latest that someone fell ill was July 4.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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