Here's the trail Minnesota food-safety
investigators followed to track jalapeno peppers
from a restaurant in Roseville back to Mexico.
On June 30, state investigators visit a
restaurant in Roseville, Minn., after getting a
flurry of salmonella saintpaul illness reports
in the previous week. They check the credit card
receipts of customers, some ill, and compare
what they ate. Their focus turns to jalapenos
used in a garnish. All told, 28 people are
sickened. Investigators also get invoices from
the restaurant showing where it got jalapenos.
Investigators determine that the jalapenos came
from Distributor A in St. Paul that diced them.
Distributor A got peppers from fresh-produce
Distributor B based near St. Paul on June 7, 10,
13 and 14.
Distributor B received peppers on June 5 from
Distributor C at the McAllen Produce Terminal
Market in McAllen, Texas. Distributor B also got
peppers on June 9 and 13 from Distributors D and
E at a produce market in Los Angeles.
Distributor C got produce from a distributor in
Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Peppers arrived in McAllen
on May 28, one day after leaving Mexico.
Distributors D and E got produce from two
growers in Baja California in Mexico. Peppers
left Mexico on June 2 and 8.
Sources: Minnesota Departments of
Agriculture and Health
Terminal Market, a 42-acre wholesale market 5
miles north of a major border crossing point for Mexican fresh produce
entering the USA.
From concrete loading docks, 100 small distributors
and importers peddle tons of fresh produce a day — including
Mexican-grown peppers, limes, mangoes and watermelon — mostly to
supermarket and restaurant buyers. Need a new TV or lawnmower? They're
It was jalapeno peppers that drew Food and Drug
Administration investigators. Last month, they found Mexican-grown
jalapenos at a small distributor here that were contaminated with the same
strain of salmonella saintpaul that's sickened 1,405 people nationwide and
Whether those peppers, or others from a different
farm in Mexico, caused the outbreak is uncertain. The investigation
continues. Mexico says its tests show none of the strain on suspect farms.
U.S. lawmakers have said the investigation, now in
its third month, has taken too long. They've also called for stronger laws
ensuring that food sellers know where their products come from so that
future outbreaks can be solved faster.
But the workings of the McAllen market reveal the
sometimes long, convoluted and freewheeling way that fresh produce moves
from farm to fork. They also underscore how difficult traceback can be,
especially when small players are involved. That's been the case in the
salmonella investigation, which focused on tomatoes before turning to
"The traceback has worked. It's just been
slow," says David Acheson, the FDA's food-safety chief, of the
The McAllen market is capitalism in motion. In the
morning, semis, pickups and vans pour through the gates of the complex
carrying fresh produce, mostly from Mexico. It's delivered to distributors
who rent stalls in the market's giant warehouses.
In the afternoon, much of the produce goes out.
Buyers include U.S. retailers with stores from Georgia to Illinois, local
distributors who deliver to restaurants via pickups, and flea-market
vendors. Buyers can walk the docks, stall to stall, eyeing the goods. Most
often, they drive to the dock of a preferred supplier. Prices are spoken,
not written. Crumpled cash is as common as credit. Orders for one case, or
a truckload, are filled all the same.
Most of the USA's fresh produce once moved through
such markets in cities from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, says Bryan
Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, which
represents 3,000 grower/shippers, retailers and others. Today, the markets
handle about 20%, as big retailers, restaurants and food producers have
shifted to buying directly from growers and approved suppliers.
The change has improved food traceability. Big
companies, including Costco Wholesale, Fresh Express and Ace Tomato, say
computerized systems enable them to trace fresh produce from stores to
growers within hours or minutes. Key to that capability? Numbers or other
identifiers that go on cases or pallets of produce and stay with the
produce from the field or packing shed to the processing plant or store.
But at the McAllen market, crates and pallets of
produce sometimes sit on the loading dock without such identifying
information, even though sellers can say where they got them. Still,
traceability in such instances is lost or at risk, says Ace Tomato
President Parker Booth.
Produce in crates or pallets may be mingled with
produce from multiple growers. Once unmarked produce gets to a store
warehouse, it may be more easily mixed with other produce, he adds.
Booth's company won't buy from terminal markets,
even though he says the produce is probably safe. "We don't know
where that product came from," he says. "We want to buy direct
from the grower."
Frontera Produce, one of Texas' largest fresh
produce distributors, is headquartered 10 miles north of the McAllen
market. In the past, it bought from market distributors if its regular
suppliers ran short and Frontera needed more fruits or vegetables to fill
orders for customers such as Wal-Mart, Kroger and Safeway. Spot buying
like that is common in the industry, says Frontera CEO Will Steele.
A year ago, Frontera eliminated purchases from
distributors who couldn't track produce to the field. About six of several
dozen failed to meet the new rules. Some were from the McAllen market,
"Eighty percent of the industry has good
traceback, 20% doesn't, and they put all of us at risk," he says.
The contaminated jalapeno peppers that the FDA said
it found at the McAllen market were handled by distributor Agricola
Zaragoza. On July 21, it recalled the peppers, which had been shipped to
customers in Texas and Georgia in plastic crates and bags with no brand
name or label, according to a company statement. The company refused
'One up, one back'
Federal law, adopted as part of The Bioterrorism
Act after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, requires food producers,
distributors and others to record to whom they sent product and from whom
they received it.
In documents published in 2004, the FDA said 20% of
food traceback investigations ended prematurely because of inadequate
record-keeping by the industry.
The one-up, one-back requirement fell short of what
the FDA had wanted, says William Hubbard, a former FDA official who
oversaw policy at that time. He says the FDA wanted distributors or
wholesalers to keep records tracking a food back to its source. One-up,
one-back was settled upon after food companies argued that a full
accounting would be too onerous, given that multiple distributors may
handle food as it moves through the supply chain, Hubbard says.
Nearly everybody can fulfill one-up, one-back,
Steele says. But the FDA's Acheson says broad use of paper records by
smaller companies involved in the salmonella traceback delayed FDA
The FDA also lost hours trying to reconcile records
company-to-company along the supply chain, asserts Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich.
At a congressional hearing last month, Stupak displayed a box from a
California supermarket that had no identifying information except
"tomatoes" and "USA."
The delays cost tomato producers dearly. Their
sales tanked throughout June amid FDA suspicions that tomatoes were to
blame for the outbreak before the agency's focus shifted in July to
peppers. The FDA is currently warning consumers to avoid raw jalapeno and
serrano peppers grown in Mexico and foods that contain them.
"A faster system … would allow (us) to
exclude products faster … and give you a source faster," Acheson
Many foods can be hard to track. A package of
hamburger that's ground in a store, for example, may include beef from
multiple suppliers. Stores, regulated by local and state laws, may not be
required to keep grinding records, says Ben Miller, traceback coordinator
for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Fresh produce is particularly tough. It moves fast
so it doesn't perish. It may be repacked, sold in bulk and handled by a
half-dozen companies with different tracking capabilities.
On a recent morning at the McAllen market, Javier
Topete worked off four computer screens in an air-conditioned room off the
loading dock of his company, Soles Produce.
Within minutes, Topete determined the Mexican
orchard in which a particular case of mangoes were grown. The mangoes were
headed to retailers including Wal-Mart and Sam's Club.
Nearby, Romeo and Gracie Gutierrez,owners of GTZ
Produce,worked their stall together. Romeo does the buying; Gracie waits
for buyers on the dock, swatting flies in the midday heat.
GTZ buys produce from a broker, who buys from
growers in the USA and Mexico, says Romeo. One of GTZ's frequent customers
is a distributor that sells to a regional grocery chain, he adds.
Following a one-up, one-back trail can be fast. It
took Minnesota food-safety officials three days to track a contaminated
jalapeno garnish from a restaurant there through three U.S. distributors
to two growers and a distributor in Mexico, says Miller. One of the three
unidentified U.S. distributors was at the McAllen market, but it was not
Agricola Zaragoza. The FDA says it was first led to the McAllen market by
other state investigators' tracebacks.
Setting new standards
Getting that kind of speed in every traceback is
needed, proponents of new standards say. Since late last year, companies
such as Frontera have joined trade associations and retailers, including
Food Lion, to set new traceability standards.
The Produce Traceability Initiative calls for
numbers on cases of produce that identify producers, lot numbers and
harvest dates, and scanners that record cases' movements through shipping.
Ace Tomato's system costs about 1 cent a box, whether the box sells for $6
or $13, Booth says. Even for small firms, the cost would be
"minimal" over time, he adds.
Backers of the initiative expect to set deadlines
for adoption of electronic records within weeks. Compliance will be
voluntary. The FDA's Acheson says mandatory rules may be needed.
Either way, Frontera's Steele says change is
needed. "There will always be outbreaks," he says. "What
matters is … whether we can go to a store and say, " 'We've
detected a problem, and it's isolated to this particular pallet or box and
let's keep doing business.' "