By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Restaurants are removing tomato slices from sandwiches and grocery stores are plucking red plum tomatoes from their produce aisles following a nationwide alert that raw tomatoes may have infected scores of people with a rare form of salmonella.
Food and Drug Administration officials warned consumers over the weekend to avoid Roma, red plum and red round tomatoes not attached to a vine because they may carry salmonella, a bacteria that causes severe abdominal pain and diarrhea. At least 145 people, including two in Virginia, have been infected since mid-April, and new cases were being linked to the outbreak yesterday. No one has died.
Salmonella is more frequently associated with poultry, which carry the bacteria. But produce is increasingly a vehicle for salmonella infection as well. Scientists and public-health experts don't completely understand how pathogens contaminate produce. The bacteria can be found in animal feces, which can spread through contaminated water, manure or improper handling. It can enter tomatoes through the roots or flowers, or through cracks in the skin of the fruit or the stem scar. Once inside, the microbe is hard to kill without cooking. Tomatoes have been linked to 13 outbreaks of salmonella since 1990, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington advocacy group.
FDA officials have been searching for the source of the outbreak since it was identified in May. Some of the first cases appeared in New Mexico, which announced an investigation May 23. About that time, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta connected the New Mexico cases to two cases in Texas, said Emily Palmer, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. All the cases involve the same unusual strain of salmonella called salmonella saintpaul.
Based on interviews of patients and a review of purchasing records, federal and state public health officials were able to narrow the likely source to the three types of tomatoes and to eliminate certain growing regions.
Tomatoes attached to the vine, cherry and grape tomatoes, and homegrown tomatoes are safe. So are tomatoes grown in Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Puerto Rico. The FDA also cleared tomatoes from Belgium, Canada, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel and Netherlands.
Despite the alert's limited scope, as a precaution many eateries have stopped serving tomatoes altogether.
"We have pulled tomatoes from all of our restaurants and do not plan to begin serving them again as long as there remains any concern about the tomato supply in this country," said Chris Arnold, a spokesman for Chipotle, the Denver-based burrito chain.
Over the past two days, hungry Washington area residents have been greeted by signs like the one taped to the registers at a K Street Burger King: "Hold the tomatoes. Tomatoes are temporarily unavailable due to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration Advisory."
McDonald's, Panera Bread, Potbelly Sandwich Works and Subway were among the restaurants that stopped serving tomatoes this week. Georgia Brown's, an upscale Southern eatery downtown, said it had stopped serving only the tomatoes affected by the alert.
Grocery stores, including Safeway, Giant Food, Harris Teeter and Wegmans, also pulled only tomatoes that the FDA said were suspect and products that might contain those varieties, such as fresh salsas. Stores continued to sell tomato varieties that the agency said are safe.
Some grocery stores and restaurants plan to bring red Romas, red plum and red round tomatoes back as early as today.
Harris Teeter plans to restock its produce aisle today with tomatoes from areas outside the FDA advisory and have been listed as safe, said spokeswoman Catherine Reuhl. Subway hopes to do the same, said spokesman Les Winograd.
Virginia public health officials have not released the names of the two residents infected. The CDC estimates about 40,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported in the United States each year, but the actual number of infections may be 30 times greater because mild cases go unreported.
Tomato growers and packers are eager for the FDA to wrap up its investigation. "If that process is not finished very quickly, the product won't be marketable," said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. "We're abandoning production in the field, and the marketplace is in absolute collapse."
Consumer advocates and produce trade groups say fresh produce needs mandatory safety standards. Currently, growers follow voluntary guidelines issued by the FDA.
The FDA is looking to update those guidelines. Last year, it launched the Tomato Safety Initiative, which entails fact-gathering visits to farms and packing plants in eastern Virginia and Florida. Most tomato-associated outbreaks over the past 10 years have been traced to those regions, which are among the dominant suppliers of the roughly 5 billion pounds of fresh tomatoes Americans consume each year.