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Salmonella Probe Expands Beyond Tomatoes

Jul 2, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Weeks after warning consumers that certain varieties of tomatoes were responsible for one of the largest Salmonella outbreaks in history, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has begun testing other produce in an attempt to finally identify the source of the illnesses.   Unfortunately, the FDA is not saying what other foods it is testing, possibly leaving consumers with no way to avoid contracting Salmonella.

The FDA has been tracking this Salmonella outbreak since mid-April.  Initially, the FDA warned consumers to avoid raw  red plum, red Roma, or round red tomatoes or any products containing them unless they are known to have come from a geographic area cleared of any connection to the outbreak. But even after restaurants and grocery stores removed the suspect tomatoes from their inventories, people continued to get sick from Salmonella.  Of the 869 illnesses now confirmed, 179 occurred in June - after the tomato warning was issued. The last illness occurred on June 20.

According to the Associated Press, tomatoes first became suspect after the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) rapidly conducted "case-control" studies in New Mexico and Texas, the outbreak's center.  Such studies involve interviewing both sick people and the healthy to determine what each ate during the time the sick would have been exposed to Salmonella bacteria.  Those studies revealed that 80 percent of the sick reported eating certain types of fresh tomatoes, far more than the healthy group did, making tomatoes the prime suspect.

Unfortunately, that theory recently took a hit.  Last Friday, David Acheson, associate commissioner with the FDA, said that of 1700 domestic and international tomato samples collected for investigators so far, none has tested positive for Salmonella St. Paul, the strain involved in this outbreak. That, coupled with the fact that people are still getting sick, means that whatever caused the outbreak is still in circulation.

There are a few possible scenarios that could explain the continuing illnesses.  Tomatoes and other produce could have picked up the Salmonella at common packing warehouses or storage areas.  Produce and tomatoes could have also been grown in adjacent fields that were contaminated with Salmonella as a result of animal waste runoff.  

Over the weekend, the CDC began interviewing those sickened in June to see if they could come up with other clues about the source of the Salmonella outbreak.  

Despite all the uncertainty, the FDA is still sticking by its tomato warning.  And it is still telling consumers that it is safe to eat grape tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached, as well as tomatoes grown in areas the agency has deemed safe.  But critics of the agency say even that is not sound advice.  Tomatoes from various geographic areas generally pass through the warehouses. If a packing house or storage shed is responsible for the Salmonella contamination, any tomatoes processed there would be at risk - including those the FDA is calling safe.

Even with such a possibility, the FDA's Acheson said the agency's advice to consumers will not change unless the investigation turns up other suspects.

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