(July 10; UPDATED July 11, 3:36 p.m.) North America’s largest foodservice company has put the brakes on shipments of fresh jalapeño peppers.

“We are putting a hold on the jalapeños we have in inventory,” said Mark Palmer, spokesman for Houston-based Sysco Corp. “We’re not distributing jalapeños. We’re also not buying additional jalapeños.”

Palmer’s comments July 10 came a day after the Food and Drug Administration expanded its consumer advisory related to an outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul to include jalapeño and serrano peppers. Palmer said Sysco’s decision also includes fresh serrano peppers.

More than 1,000 people have become confirmed ill in an ongoing outbreak that initially was linked to fresh tomatoes in late May.

In early June many retailers and restaurants temporarily pulled implicated tomato varieties from distribution after a nationwide FDA consumer advisory. It was unclear if the agency’s latest advisory would have the same effect on hot peppers.

The FDA’s tomato advisory had an immediate — and profound — effect on tomato sales and movement.

The Perishables Group reported July 11 that overall tomato volume for the four-week period ending June 28 dropped 17% compared to the same period a year ago. Sales figures collected from 15,000 stores nationwide showed a decrease of 5.4% to $136.3 million.

Field-grown roma and round, red tomatoes — varieties implicated in the outbreak by FDA — dropped 46.1% in volume and 36.2% in dollar sales. Greenhouse grown roma and red, round tomatoes declined “only slightly in comparison.”

Non-implicated varieties actually increased 3.4% in volume and 8% in dollar sales.

“I believe that many end-users will remove jalapeño and serrano peppers from their menus and shelves based on the advisory,” said Steve Grinstead, president and chief executive officer of Monterey, Calif.-based Pro*Act. “I’m not sure what processed options are available for salsa. Obviously, this will be a difficult issue for Mexican-style restaurants, as it a key item for their concept.”

Chris Arnold, public relations director for Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., said the Denver-based chain was grilling the jalapeños it uses in its fresh salsas and guacamole to kill any potential contaminants.

“We tend to err on the side of caution,” he said. “It’s important our customers see we’re taking responsible action in light of the situation.”

In its earlier advisory, the FDA warned consumers not to eat roma or red, round tomatoes unless they were sourced from areas approved by the agency. That prompted retailers and restaurants to dump product and restock tomatoes from cleared areas.

David Acheson, the FDA’s associate commissioner for foods, said July 9 that the agency does not plan to clear specific growing areas in its pepper traceback investigation.

That change in tactics might minimize damage to the pepper market. One retail produce executive, who requested anonymity, said his company would not pull peppers unless there was more specific guidance from FDA.

Teena Massingill, manager of corporate public affairs for Safeway Inc., Pleasanton, Calif., said that retailer was posting information related to the advisory near its jalapeño and serrano peppers in all of the chain’s U.S. stores but it was not pulling product either.

While Mexican restaurants and other outlets who offer fresh salsa can alter their recipes, it remains to be seen how the FDA’s new advisory will affect consumer confidence and sales.

“There’s advisory fatigue out there,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association. “First they said it was tomatoes, and then maybe it wasn’t. Now maybe it’s something else. There’s enough uncertainty that it leaves people not knowing what to do. We haven’t heard from retailers or restaurants pulling product, but we have heard from folks being nervous about shipping these commodities.”

Mainstream media outlets caused confusion with reports July 5 that said FDA was closing the border to Mexican imports implicated in the outbreak. In reality, FDA had stepped up sampling of imported and domestic tomatoes, cilantro, jalapeños and serrano peppers.

All those products remain under scrutiny.

PMA president Bryan Silbermann said loads that are sampled must be stored in a warehouse pending results. He said that in the case of a negative test for Salmonella Saintpaul, product is out of the supply chain only three to four days.

If product tests negative, it is tested again to confirm the initial result. The entire process can take up to a week, Silbermann said.

“FDA is sampling vigorously,” said John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, Mission. “I don’t know the percentage. I’ve asked them that, and to tell you the truth I don’t think they know.”

Means said the produce industry has much it can learn from the outbreak, which has underscored the need for improved record-keeping, food safety systems and traceability.

She said the state and local health agencies, meanwhile, need to decrease the time it takes for illnesses to be reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.

“Everyone looks bad,” she said. “There are a lot of fingers being pointed. People are sick, and a food product is making them sick.”

The Produce Traceability Initiative — a joint effort of PMA, the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association and the Ottawa-based Canadian Produce Marketing Association — has been working to establish industry standards for traceability. However, McClung said he fears Congress will mandate a traceability program before the industry’s initiative is final.

“We’re going to have a huge disability working with Congress because of what FDA has done,” McClung said. “What’s happening is such a failure. Congress is going to be all over this deal. Traceback is an essential component in minimizing the damage from an outbreak, but traceback has done us virtually no good because we don’t know what to trace.”