Reactions mixed on pepper link to salmonella
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By MELANIE DABOVICH
Associated Press Writer
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico jalapeno farmers should be breathing a sigh of relief.
The state’s jalapeno crop is a month away from harvest and therefore not part of the latest warning regarding the link between salmonella and raw jalapeno and serrano peppers.
But some in the pepper business worry negative publicity could hurt an already struggling industry.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration are cautioning people at high risk for contracting salmonella to avoid eating raw jalapenos, serrano peppers and fresh cilantro, in addition to certain raw tomatoes.
Confirmed are a record 1,065 cases of salmonella poisoning from April 10 to June 26, including 104 cases in New Mexico.
In New Mexico, a state known for its tasty, quality peppers and home to Hatch, a town that bills itself as the "Chile Capital of the World," any negative news regarding peppers is a cause for concern.
Gene Baca, vice president of Bueno Foods, one of the largest chili processors in the U.S., said he wants the public to be aware that green chili is not implicated nor are cooked or processed peppers of any kind. All processed peppers are heat-treated, killing any possible contaminants.
"We worry about consumer perception," said Baca, who also serves as president of the New Mexico Chile Association, "because initial articles were saying it was jalapenos and hot peppers, and we’re worried that people might say ’Oh, I better not eat chili because it’s a hot pepper."’
Baca said New Mexico’s struggling chili industry — working to stay alive amid increased foreign chili imports and high production costs — can’t afford to lose consumers due to misguided information. The association estimates the state’s $325 million pepper industry employs 4,000 workers.
"We would hate to see declining demand as the FDA runs roughshod over our industry as it did with the tomato industry. The difference is our industry cannot withstand another hit," Baca said. He urged federal investigators to "work through this in a commonsense manner."
Farmer Robert Sondgeroth, who grows 70 acres of jalapenos at his farm in Anthony, said New Mexico’s jalapeno peppers are expected to be harvested around Aug. 1. That means the state’s 600 acres of jalapenos are not part of the current investigation.
No serrano peppers are grown in New Mexico and no other peppers have been targeted as part of the investigation into the salmonella outbreak.
Mexico grows and consumes the majority of jalapenos on the fresh and processed market, said James Ditmore, international marketing specialist for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture. The crop also is commercially grown in Texas, California, Florida and Arizona along with New Mexico. Nearly 98 percent of the crop is grown for commercial processing, he said.
Even possibly stalling Mexican-grown jalapenos from entering the U.S. during the investigation could create a financial burden for U.S. processors, since most of them use "quite a bit" of the peppers from Mexico, Baca said.
If the peppers are stuck at the border, "it hurts the industry," he said.
Sondgeroth and Ditmore are more optimistic, saying the blistering jalapeno pepper warning won’t cause the state’s chili industry to flinch.
"It will not effect the pepper industry in New Mexico," he said. Jalapeno farming "is really small scale in the U.S and I don’t think it will have any effect on our chili."
On the Net:
New Mexico Chile Association: http://www.nmchileassociation.com