In our countdown of the top 17 food safety stories of the year, number 7 is about pepper.
In a year when various strains of Salmonella infected people eating alfalfa sprouts, shell eggs, and cheesy chicken frozen rice, or handling frozen rodents and water frogs, a Salmonella Montevideo outbreak involving red and black pepper and Italian-style meat was probably the most interesting.
It took awhile to figure this one out, and because both meat and pepper were involved it brought out both USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with an important assist from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Before it was all over, the CDC would find at least 272 individuals infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Montevideo based on either of two closely related pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) patterns that were reported in 44 states and the District of Columbia.
The outbreak dated back to July 1, 2009, but it took until Jan. 23, 2010 for FSIS to announce that Rhode Island-based Daniele Inc., which makes ready-to-eat meats, was recalling 1.264 million pounds of its Italian-style sausage products.
It was not until Jan. 31, when it expanded the recall with an additional 17,235 pounds, that Daniele Inc. confirmed its meat products were likely being cross-contaminated by the pepper used to coat the product. The expanded recall was brought about by additional product testing by the state of Illinois.
More product testing by FSIS added another 115,000 pounds to the recall, bringing it to more than 1.5 million pounds and putting both black and red pepper on the suspect list.
In a statement at the time, Daniele said “products were not subject to recall previously because they are not sausage products that contain black pepper on the external surface, or packaged with such products. Based on preliminary testing results, the company believes that crushed red pepper may be a possible source of Salmonella contamination.”
The hunt for contaminated black and red pepper was clearly on.
It was not long until there were two pepper recalls believed to be associated with the Daniele recalls because they involved pepper suppliers to the Rhode Island company.
On Feb. 25, Brooklyn-based Wholesome Spice recalled all lots of its 25-pound boxes of Crushed Red Pepper sold between April 6, 2009 and Jan. 20, 2010 because of the potential for Salmonella contamination. Wholesome Spice sold the crushed red pepper in the northeastern U.S.
Wholesome Spice said it was working with FDA to determine how the contamination occurred.
Then on March 5, Mincing Overseas Spice Company based in Dayton, NJ recalled two lots of black pepper for possible Salmonella contamination. Mincing sold the black pepper in 20-, 25-, and 50-pound cartons in a dozen states.
A pepper scare at the consumer level never really developed, but according to CDC there were 11 additional company recalls associated with either Mincing Overseas or Wholesome Spice.
Vietnam shipped 135,000 tons of black pepper for import into the United States last year, and Wholesome Spice acknowledged it was one of the Southeast Asian nation’s buyers. However, a Vietnam trade association vehemently denied it was responsible for the Salmonella contamination.
FDA never commented on Vietnam’s claims.
Further complexity was added when a second strain of Salmonella became part of the outbreak.
“Salmonella Senftenberg, a different serotype of Salmonella, has been found in food samples from retail and a patient household during this outbreak investigation. PulseNet identified 11 persons who had illness caused by Salmonella Senftenberg with matching PFGE patterns between July 1, 2009 and April 28, 2010,” CDC reported.
“Public health officials have interviewed 9 of the 11 ill persons with this strain of Salmonella Senftenberg and determined that two purchased a recalled salami product during the week before their illness began. These 11 cases are not included in the overall case count reported above,” it added.
Luckily no one died from the peppered salami outbreak of 2010. FSIS reports the recall was successful in retrieving 234,686 pounds of the salami, which unlike most meat has an extended shelf life of at least one year. Shopper cardholders were contacted and increased the effectiveness of the recall.
CDC credited the Rhode Island Department of Public Health’s testing with finding the outbreak strain of Salmonella Montevideo in samples of black and red pepper intended for use in the production of Italian-style meats at Daniele International Inc.