FDA Lifts Salmonella Tomato BanJul 18, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
As recently as yesterday, federal authorities refused to lift the ban on tomatoes in connection to the nationwide Salmonella St. Paul outbreak that sickened over 1,200 people since mid-April. But, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has just announced tomatoes sold in the United States are safe to eat again, lifting the warning on raw, plum, and round tomatoes over the risk of salmonella contamination. The news comes as a relief to Florida tomato growers who were becoming fed-up and calling on federal regulators to declare their products Salmonella-free. The FDA’s alert last month not only included specific types of tomatoes, but also included tomatoes grown in several Florida counties. The FDA has not been able to prove that tomatoes were to blame for the multi-state Salmonella outbreak.
Even with all suspect tomatoes off of the market, people continued to get sick, prompting the FDA to admit that it is "highly unlikely" that raw tomatoes implicated in the outbreak of salmonella are still on the market, this according to David Acheson, the FDA’s associate commissioner for foods. As a matter-of-fact, even though growers in affected areas in Florida had not shipped tomatoes in over two months, Salmonella illnesses continued to be reported daily, with the last illness reported on July 4. The initial warning to not eat certain tomatoes from certain US states was issued June 7 when first reports pointed to tomatoes as the culprit. Just last week, the FDA extended the warning to include Serrano and Jalapeño peppers; the FDA was also looking at cilantro.
At last count, this outbreak of Salmonella sickened at least 1,220 people and hospitalizing 224 in a wide variety of states, the District of Columbia, and Canada. Of the five Canadians who contracted the disease, four had recently traveled in the United States; the other illness remains under investigation.
It remains unclear from where the Salmonella St. Paul—a rare form of Salmonella—contamination originated; however, it is possible that tomatoes from Florida and Mexico may have caused illnesses. Regardless, the FDA is now focusing on Jalapeño and Serrano peppers as those items appear to have also played a part in the widespread contamination in some of the recent infections and the tainted produce may still be on the market, Acheson said. Investigators are being sent to a packing facility in Mexico that handles both types of peppers. "This is not saying that anybody was absolved," Acheson said. "What we're saying right now is informing consumers that tomatoes that are currently in stores and coming on to the market—domestic and imported—are okay."
Florida growers estimate that they may be facing losses in the hundreds of millions—from $600 million to $700 million—and have been waiting for the ban to be lifted so that they can begin their replanting for next season.
Salmonella can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. In some, hospitalization is required because the infection may have spread from the intestines to the blood stream and other body sites. Without treatment, severe cases of Salmonella can result in death. It is important to note that some Salmonella bacteria have become antibiotic resistant.