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Salmonella Tomatoes Sicken 277, Source of Tainted Tomatoes Still Unknown

Jun 17, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Salmonella tainted tomatoes have sickened 277 people in 28 states and the District of Columbia, federal health officials said yesterday.  Unfortunately, investigators have yet to determine where the contaminated tomatoes came from, and are still focusing on parts of Florida and Mexico.  However, an official with  the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) did say that a cluster of illnesses linked to a single source may be an important lead in tracing the origins of the Salmonella outbreak.

The tomato Salmonella outbreak began in mid-April, and at that time was centered mostly in New Mexico and Texas.  Last week, the FDA warned consumers nationwide to avoid eating raw red plum, red Roma and red round tomatoes and products containing them.  Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and those sold with the vine have been deemed safe to eat.  Red plum, red Roma and red round tomatoes are safe if they are known to have come from geographic areas listed on the FDA's website.

Since the end of last week, 49 more cases of Salmonella linked to tomatoes have been identified in 5 more states and the District of Columbia.  Forty-three victims have been hospitalized.  No deaths have officially been attributed to the outbreak, but the infection may have been a factor in the death of a Texas man in his 60s who also had cancer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

In a conference call with news reporters yesterday, David Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner of foods, said that the discovery of a cluster of illnesses linked to one source is a helpful development because it allows investigators to better trace the source of the tomatoes, from foodservice facilities to distributors and possibly to the farm.  Acheson declined to name the geographic region or where the people consumed the tainted tomatoes.

While the FDA would not identify the location of the Salmonella cluster, Bloomberg News is reporting that such a cluster was identified in Chicago.  Tim Hadac, a spokesman with the Chicago Department of Public Health, told Bloomberg News that nine people got sick with Salmonella infections after eating at a Chicago restaurant in mid May. Hadac told Bloomberg that the restaurant has multiple locations around Chicago but isn't part of a national chain. It's unclear if the cluster the FDA identified is the same as the Chicago one.

Tomatoes from Florida and Mexico continue to be suspects in the Salmonella outbreak, as growers in that area were harvesting at the time the illnesses were first reported.  However, the FDA has cleared tomatoes from northern Florida growing regions because they are just now being harvested and weren't available at the start of the outbreak. Acheson said some retailers are selling those tomatoes and are posting certificates from the state of Florida verifying that they are from northern Florida. He said growing regions in central and southern Florida are no longer harvesting tomatoes.

The FDA has stepped up sampling on tomatoes entering the United States from all regions of Mexico, Acheson said.  Unfortunately, the FDA doesn't have the authority to stop shipments without evidence that tomatoes from a certain growing region are the source of the outbreak. If the contaminated tomatoes are from Mexico, he said, there is a chance that the products are still entering the United States.

Tomatoes from the Baja region of Mexico, however, have been cleared, because the area did not begin harvesting tomatoes until after infections began, FDA officials said.

The FDA says it still considers the tomato Salmonella outbreak to be ongoing, as reports of illnesses are still being made.

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