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Salmonella Tomato Probe Getting Close to Source, FDA Says

Jun 11, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Federal regulators are said to be getting closer to  determining the origin of a Salmonella outbreak linked to raw tomatoes.  Earlier this week, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) warned consumers nationwide to avoid eating raw red plum, red Roma and red round tomatoes and products containing them.  The tomatoes have been linked to 167 cases of Salmonella poisoning in 17 states, and may be implicated in the death of a Texas cancer patient.

Since the outbreak began in mid-April, the FDA has been trying to pinpoint exactly where the Salmonella-tainted tomatoes came from.  The agency has already deemed Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and those sold with the vine as safe to eat.  The FDA also said that tomatoes from growers in Arkansas, California, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Belgium, Canada, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel, the Netherlands and Puerto Rico.

But there is no word yet on where the Salmonella tomatoes came from, though the FDA says it is making progress in the investigation.  "We are getting closer to identifying the source or sources,” Julie Zawisza, a spokeswoman for the FDA said late Tuesday.

The FDA has confirmed the same strain of Salmonella - St. Paul - in 167 victims; however, most experts agree the true number of people affected by outbreak is probably higher.  Some estimates say that only 1 in 38 cases of Salmonella are ever reported.  Twenty-three outbreak victims have been hospitalized, and Salmonella has been listed as contributing to the death of a cancer patient in Texas.  The man apparently contracted Salmonella from pico de gallo he ate at a Mexican restaurant.

One of the things making the tomato Salmonella investigation so difficult is logistics.  Fresh produce increasingly comes from far-away states and even far-away countries, which is why contaminations increasingly crop up across the country.  Before the advent of globalization, food poisoning outbreaks from fruits and vegetable were usually isolated to geographic areas near were the tainted food was grown.  

Even though there is wide consensus that federal regulators need to develop new rules to insure the safety of a an increasingly global food supply, little has been done on that front.  In November the FDA released a “food protection plan,” but the Bush administration did not ask for the money to finance parts of it until Monday night.   Following news of the tomato Salmonella outbreak, the administration amended the FDA's proposed budget, and is now asking Congress for an additional $275 million for next year, $125 million of which would go to food protection.  At least one lawmaker, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), has likened the Administration's slow response to food safety as "criminal negligence."

Meanwhile, while the Bush Administration has been dragging its feet on FDA funding, American's are enduring yet another food poisoning scare.  While recent outbreaks of food borne illness have been linked to everything from peanut butter to fresh spinach, raw tomatoes are one of the most frequent culprits.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, since 1990, there have been 13 multi-state outbreaks of Salmonella poisoning related to tomatoes.


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