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Uninspected Imported Mexican Peppers Mean Death for Preacher

Raul Rivera and Family
Raul Rivera, with his daughter Delyne, held his great-granddaughter Alexis. Courtesy of the family.

Raul Rivera took his family to dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Houston to celebrate a new lease on life. His oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center had just told him he’d probably survive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“We were so happy because it looked like he’d beaten cancer,” Rivera’s wife, Barbara, says of the dinner on May 21, 2008.

Instead, it was Rivera’s last sit-down meal. Over the next seven days, he got so sick with diarrhea, fever and stomach pain that his wife had an ambulance take him to St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its November issue.

Four others at the dinner got sick, and tests showed that Rivera was infected with salmonella, which can be fatal in children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. Rivera, who gave up a career at Nabisco Inc. to start a Baptist church, died on June 4, 2008. Rivera’s death certificate lists salmonellosis as the sole significant contributor to his passing.

He was a victim of a foodborne outbreak caused by an imported product. The salsa-like pico de gallo that Rivera had eaten was contaminated with salmonella, the Houston Department of Health and Human Services found. The CDC found that jalapenos from Mexico caused the outbreak that sickened 1,442 people, killing two in 2008.

Rising Risks

The outbreak shows the dangers behind America’s rising dependence on imported food, says Trevor Suslow, who teaches produce safety at the University of California, Davis. Imported food accounts for a fifth of what Americans eat, and outbreaks caused by foreign food are rising in the U.S., the CDC says.

There were 39 from 2005 to 2010, more than double the number from the previous six-year period. One of the latest was caused by salmonella-contaminated mangoes from Mexico, which had sickened 121 people in the U.S. by Sept. 14.

FDA investigators traced the jalapeno outbreak to a McAllen, Texas, warehouse used by Nueva Leon, Mexico-based produce exporter Agricola Zaragoza SA. Crates of jalapenos tested positive for the salmonella strain that killed Rivera.

The peppers came from a farm in Mexico’s Tamaulipas state, where irrigation water was contaminated with salmonella, FDA inspection reports show. The FDA announced the outbreak publicly on June 3, 2008, one day before Rivera died. By then, federal health officials had confirmed or suspected that at least 70 Americans were sick, CDC records show.

Rivera wouldn’t have eaten the peppers had he known there was a salmonella outbreak because his immune system had been weakened by chemotherapy, his wife says. She took great care to avoid risks.

“I am convinced this could have been avoided if they had just told us there was an outbreak,” she says, standing over her husband’s grave in Houston.

Editors: Jonathan Neumann, Gail Roche

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