By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Federal food safety officials yesterday cleared Florida's latest tomato crop as safe to eat, a move that is likely to speed the return of tomatoes to many restaurants.
Florida is the nation's leading supplier of fresh tomatoes. The Food and Drug Administration decision is also expected to help grocery stores replenish their supplies of Roma, red plum and red round tomatoes, which remain the subject of a nationwide alert. On Saturday the FDA told consumers to avoid the three types of tomatoes grown outside certain areas because they may be the cause of a widening salmonella outbreak.
The outbreak, which involves a rare strain of the bacteria known as Salmonella saintpaul, has spread to 17 states and sickened at least 167 people since mid-April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Public health officials continue to investigate more potential cases, including ones from early June, said David Acheson, a top FDA food safety official.
The FDA cleared tomatoes now being harvested in Florida because they come from regions where tomatoes were not being picked when the outbreak began. However, investigators have not eliminated the state as a potential source of the outbreak, Acheson said in an interview.
The growing season in Florida lasts from October through June, and tomatoes are harvested in different parts of the state at different times.
The FDA is also looking at Mexico, which is also a leading supplier of fresh tomatoes to the United States during the winter and spring. Because of shipping costs, Florida dominates the market in the eastern half of the country and Mexico the western half, said David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology with the United Fresh Produce Association, a Washington trade group.
There is no evidence so far linking Mexican tomatoes to the outbreak, but a major tomato growers group yesterday said shipments to the United States were being halted as a precaution.
Virginia, a state that is one of the nation's top producers of fresh tomatoes, was not on the FDA's list of safe sources as of last night, even though growers there usually don't begin harvesting until after the Fourth of July. Virginia officials expected the FDA to add the state as early as today. Maryland and Pennsylvania have been cleared.
The FDA's decision to add Florida to the list of safe domestic tomato sources will make life easier for restaurants and grocery stores, which have been scrambling to find alternate suppliers. Many eateries, including McDonald's and Panera Bread, stopped serving tomatoes altogether.
"Certainly having additional supply cleared by the FDA should help," said Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. The tomato alert forced the Denver chain to banish mild salsa from its burritos, chips and tacos. Arnold said he expects fresh tomatoes to return to its West Coast outlets tomorrow and to Washington area stores by Sunday.
The FDA's move also came as a relief to Florida's tomato industry, which was looking at a potential loss of $40 million worth of tomatoes.
State and industry officials said they expect that the state will eventually be cleared as the source of the outbreak, as well. They cite mandatory safety standards for growers and packers that went into effect last fall. In addition, there have been no outbreak-related illnesses reported in the state.
"With all this information, we feel confident it wasn't Florida, it isn't Florida and it won't be Florida," said Liz Compton, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Some consumers remained confused yesterday by the alert, especially its sweeping prohibition on "red round tomatoes."
FDA officials said the alert is based on information from extensive interviews with people who became ill and whose memories are often not precise.
"When you ask a consumer, they said, 'Well it was red and round. What do you think it was?' " Acheson said.
He advised consumers: "If you're not sure and you're looking at a red tomato, ask the retailer, 'Where did these come from?' " (A list of the 19 states declared safe can be found at http://www.foodsafety.gov.)
Scientists don't fully understand how salmonella, a bacteria that lives in the intestines of humans and animals, contaminates tomatoes. They know, however, that the germs are spread through contaminated water, manure or improper handling.
The bacteria can enter tomatoes through cracks in the skin of the fruit or the stem scar. Once inside, only cooking can reliably kill it, though consumers are advised to routinely wash vegetables to lessen risk.
Fresh tomatoes are grown all over the country at different times of the year. Farmers irrigate them either using an underground drip system or by filling ditches that run alongside rows of tomato plants with water, United Fresh's Gomba said.
The tomatoes are typically hand-picked while they are still green and collected in bins, which are then emptied into tanks of chlorinated water to wash off dirt and sediment.
The tomatoes are stored in a ripening room and from there are sorted by size and color based on customer orders. A handful of grower-packers dominate both the Florida and Virginia tomato industries and harvest up and down the Southeast coast.