The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta Monday provided an update on its Salmonella Montevideo investigation and it took a murky turn.

“During January 16-21, 2010, ” the update said, “CDC and public health officials in multiple states conducted an epidemiologic study by comparing foods eaten by 39 ill and 39 well persons.

“Preliminary analysis of this study has suggested salami as a possible source of illness. Ill persons (51 percent) were significantly more likely than well persons (15 percent) to report eating salami.

“Additionally, 11 ill persons have been identified who purchased the same type of sliced salami variety pack at different grocery store locations before becoming ill. These data suggest this product may be the source of some of these illnesses.”

CDC said sliced salami variety pack was the one recalled on Jan. 23 by Daniele International Inc.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), also on Jan. 23, issued a recall notice for 1.24 million pounds of ready-to-eat varieties of Italian sausage products including salame/salami sold by Daniele through retailers that may be contaminated with Salmonella.

The manufacturer has voluntarily halted production of salami products.

“This recall,” CDC continued, “followed isolation of Salmonella in a private laboratory from a retail sample of a salami product produced by Daniele International.

“FSIS reviewed and affirmed these private laboratory results. This Salmonella strain is different from the strains causing the outbreak.

“In addition, this product was different than the sliced salami variety pack purchased at different grocery store locations by the 11 ill persons.

CDC and its public health partners are continuing the epidemiologic investigation to verify that the outbreak is controlled, and to identify the specific products or ingredients that became contaminated and how the contamination occurred, and to identify any other food vehicles that may be involved. It is possible that more than one food product may be causing illnesses.

“The investigation is on-going.”

As for the outbreak, CDC’s update added just three individuals and one state to the previous totals.  Here’s that summary:

As of 9:00 pm EST on January 24, 2010, a total of 187 individuals infected with a matching strain of Salmonella Montevideo have been reported from 39 states since July 1, 2009.  The number of ill persons identified in each state with this strain is as follows:  AL (2), AZ (5), CA (30), CO (3), CT (4), DE (2), FL (2), GA (3), IA (1), IL (11), IN (3), KS (3), LA (1), MA (12), MD (1), ME (1), MI (1), MN (4), MO (1), NC (9), ND (1), NE (1), NH (1), NJ (7), NY (15), OH (9), OK (1), OR (8), PA (3), RI (2), SC (1), SD (3), TN (4), TX (7), UT (7), VA (1), WA (14), WV (1), and WY (2). Because this is a commonly occurring strain, public health investigators may determine that some of the illnesses are not part of this outbreak.

Among the persons with reported dates available, illnesses began between July 2, 2009 and January 7, 2010.  Infected individuals range in age from <1 year old to 88 years old and the median age is 36 years.  Fifty-two percent of patients are male.  Among the 133 patients with available information, 37 (28%) were hospitalized.  No deaths have been reported.

With investigation in the murky stage, there has been some speculation about the true source of the Salmonella being pepper, not the actual salami.  Gene Grabowski, spokesman for Daniele Inc, told Food Safety News: “It looks like it (pepper) might actually be the source of the Salmonella, and not the salami itself.”

Grabowski says just the possibility has Daniele requiring its suppliers to irradiate spices like pepper.  “McCormick, for example, a big pepper supplier, irradiates.” he says.  “It a common practice for them.”

Irradiation is not common in the pepper business due to the costs it adds.  But Grabowski adds: “If its does turn out that pepper is the indisputable source, I think we will probably see irradiation become a standard operating procedure.

Grabowski declined to name Daniele’s suppliers “for issues of liability and so forth at this point.”  He said that’s up to FSIS.


UPDATE: The process McCormick uses does not involve irradiation.

“McCormick & Company, Inc. treats its black pepper to control pathogens using a proprietary steam sterilization system and other common treatment techniques. The McCormick US Consumer Products Division does not irradiate any of its consumer products at present and has no plans to do so in the future,”says John G. McCormick, vice president for corporate communications and community relations. “Furthermore, product produced for our Industrial food customers is treated by the processes described above.  We will only send product out for irradiation if specifically directed to do so by that Industrial food customer (it is not a common request).”