Reporter's Notebook: Salmonella Saintpaul

Categories: Science

When I first started reporting the Salmonella Saintpaul story in this week's issue, I didn't know that I'd be covering breaking news. I just had a simple question: Why was the strain of bacteria that was sickening the nation named after Minnesota's capital city?

I was watching an NBC Nightly News broadcast about the outbreak when I saw Michael Osterholm, a nationwide expert who happened to be a professor at the University of Minnesota. I figured he'd be the perfect guy to answer my question.

Osterholm did indeed know the answer--it has to do with a local professor who first diagnosed the Salmonella in turkeys--but he also told me a much more interesting story: Data from a cluster of people sickened in Minnesota was a key part of the unraveling mystery.

I asked Osterholm who I should call that had first-hand knowledge of the Minnesota part of the investigation, and he pointed me to Kirk Smith, the Foodborne, Vector borne, and Zoonotic Disease Unit Manager for the Minnesota Department of Health.

Not that Osterholm thought that it would get me anywhere.

"He won't talk," Osterholm assured me. "They're waiting till everything gets put together here. You would be about 19th or 20th of people trying to interview him. Until the entire thing is put together, I don't think they're commenting. You could call them and sure find out."

I took the dare and called Smith and found him to be much more ameniable to an interview than Osterholm suspected. Smith gave me the broad outlines of the investigation, and told me that the local guy who had tracked the Salmonella Saintpaul back to a jalapeno pepper from a distribution warehouse in McAllen, Texas, was Ben Miller of the Agriculture Department.

Miller wasn't thrilled when I started calling him. "Per our agency's policy I'm required to direct you to our Communications Director, Mike Schommer," he wrote in an email.

Schommer was up north helping with a gypsy moth treatment, but he gave his blessing for a phone interview with Miller.

By then, the FDA and CDC had held a press conference in which they announced that a Salmonella Saintpaul-tainted jalapeno had been discovered at the Agricola Zaragoza produce distribution center in McAllen, Texas. And that's exactly the town that Miller had traced the Minnesota cluster back to.

Interestingly, however, Miller's traceback fingered a different distributor in the same town.

"On speaking with the health department, it sounds like that particular distributor is in very close proximity to the one we found," Miller told me. "So I can't speak to practices down there, I'm not exactly sure how those produce distributors are related, I think the CDC and FDA are investigating that."


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