(July 31, 3:14 p.m.) Samples of irrigation water and serrano peppers taken from a farm in Mexico have tested positive for Salmonella Saintpaul, the pathogen responsible for an outbreak that has caused more than 1,300 reported illnesses.

David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration’s associate commissioner for foods, announced the break in the outbreak investigation July 30 during a congressional hearing focused on traceability in the fresh produce industry.

“We have a smoking gun, it appears,” said Lonnie King, director of the National Center for Zoonotic, Vector-Borne and Enteric Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

FDA expanded its advisory for Mexican serrano peppers, which previously had been for high-risk consumers, to include all consumers. A similar advisory already was in place for Mexican jalapeños.

The farm in the state of Tamaulipas has not been identified as of July 31. Acheson said FDA is investigating where the Mexican grower distributed its product.

FDA previously had tracked a tainted jalapeño sampled in a McAllen, Texas, warehouse back to another Mexican farm in Nuevo Leon. However, it is unclear where the jalapeño was contaminated.

Acheson said both farms shipped product through a common distributor, but he did not elaborate. He said the farms were about three hours apart, and it was unclear whether they shared a common water source.

Acheson said the Nuevo Leon farm produced peppers and tomatoes, the commodity public health officials initially blamed for the outbreak in late May.

Acheson said the Tamaulipas grower only handled peppers. He said additional tests from Mexico are pending.

Acheson reiterated FDA’s stance that tomatoes currently in the supply chain are safe, but the agency has not exonerated the commodity because of epidemiology that led CDC to roma and red, round tomatoes early in the investigation.

Though Acheson has talked at length about the difficulty of the traceback process, Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., said traceability was not the problem.

He said CDC’s flawed process put FDA investigators on the wrong path.

“Traceback worked,” he said, “it just didn’t confirm the hypothesis that the Centers for Disease Control had advanced, and that we now know was most likely wrong. For weeks and weeks, investigators were on the trail of the wrong product. Once they started looking for jalapenos, they got there very quickly.”

More than 1,300 people in 43 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada have been affected in the ongoing outbreak, according to the CDC. As of July 30, at least 255 people have been hospitalized. The most recent onset date of a reported illness was July 13.

It’s unclear how much money the outbreak has caused the industry.

Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Fla., who has introduced a House bill seeking compensation for growers, said Florida growers lost an estimated $47 million. Hank Giclas, vice president of strategic planning, science and technology for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, said California growers have lost $13 million, and their season is far from over.

A hearing to discuss the possibility of compensation is expected in September after legislators return from an August recess, said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif.

“Growers in my area have been devastated and not of their own doing,” said Cardoza, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture.

Cardoza questioned the effectiveness of communication between state health agencies, CDC and FDA. Public health officials from New Mexico and Texas — where the outbreak investigation originated — declined to appear, Cardoza said.

King said one problem that hampered the investigation was lack of resources at the state level. He said that slows the pace at which illnesses are reported to CDC.

Cardoza was dismayed that the salmonella outbreak followed closely behind the 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to fresh spinach.

“We sat here a little more than a year ago and had nearly the same conversation about spinach,” he said. “Was nothing learned from that experience? Were we any better prepared this time around?”

Several witnesses called for improved communication and collaboration between industry and government.

Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead, Fla., said FDA and CDC were reluctant to turn to industry for help understanding and identifying distribution channels.

“Tapping into industry expertise early on would have gone a long way in speeding up the traceback,” he said. “More cooperation is clearly needed in the future.”

Two members of the House — Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Adam Putnam, R-Fla. — used the hearing as a platform to discuss their own bills.

Putnam has co-sponsored the Safe Food Enforcement, Assessment, Standards and Targeting Act. That legislation would give FDA recall authority. It also would lead to mandatory science-based regulations for high-risk crops and updated good agricultural practices guidelines for other crops.

The standards would apply to domestic and imported products.

DeGette’s bill would require FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a traceability system that would track food throughout the supply chain.

“In an industry where brand preservation is everything, we can’t allow this to continue,” DeGette said of outbreaks. “A comprehensive traceback program would allow for targeted recalls. If an outbreak occurs we will know exactly what lots were potentially contaminated instead of targeting the entire universe of products like we did with spinach, tomatoes, and peppers.”

Bryan Silbermann, president of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, pointed out in his testimony that PMA, United Fresh and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association were working on a joint Produce Industry Traceability Initiative before the latest outbreak began. That group is expected to finalize dates of implementation for case-level traceability in August.

Public health officials in Minnesota have been credited with helping steer the investigation to jalapeños. Michael Osterholm, director for the Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota said the rapid response system used in that state could be replicated in all 50 states for $50 million to $100 million a year. He said the investment would be well worth it considering the cost to industry and public health in a large outbreak.