Salmonella-Tainted Tomatoes Linked to Markets, Restaurants

Officials say the salmonella outbreak isn't tied to a single grocery or restaurant chain.
Officials say the salmonella outbreak isn't tied to a single grocery or restaurant chain. (By Russel A. Daniels -- Associated Press)
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Associated Press
Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tomatoes tainted with salmonella have been traced to supermarkets and restaurants, federal food safety officials said yesterday.

"It's people who are eating them at home and eating them at restaurants," said Ian Williams, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "There is not one single restaurant chain or supermarket associated with this."

But officials still do not know the original source of the tomatoes that have caused at least 167 cases of salmonella -- and probably many more because in a typical outbreak numerous people have symptoms without reporting them to health officials.

"We're not quite there yet," said David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration's associate commissioner for foods. "We're getting very close, but at this point today, we don't know where they've come from."

Officials said Tuesday that tomatoes harvested in Florida's latest crop were safe, and in a conference call yesterday, Acheson reiterated that tomatoes picked earlier in the state had not been cleared.

"When it comes to Florida, it's a mixed picture," he said. "Florida was producing tomatoes at the time the outbreak started. That part of Florida is still being considered. Those being harvested now were not part of the outbreak."

New reports of illness are still coming in, Williams said on the conference call. "And we would characterize the outbreak at this point as still ongoing," he said.

U.S. health officials said there were no confirmed salmonella deaths linked to the outbreak, which was reported in at least 17 states. The FDA was posting on its Web site states and countries that had safe tomatoes.

The latest prominent tomato-associated outbreak of salmonella, in 2006, involved at least 183 illnesses in 21 states. That outbreak was blamed on tomatoes eaten in restaurants. But restaurants didn't stop serving tomatoes back then.

Experts cited a range of possible explanations for the difference, including the FDA's quick and specific action.

"This outbreak, the FDA is clearly making an effort to do better to inform consumers," said Sarah Klein, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "They have been fairly slow in the past."

But some think food sellers have become more sensitive to the issue of tainted produce since 2006, when spinach contaminated with E. coli bacteria killed three people and shook consumer confidence in green leafy vegetables.

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