By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 21, 2008
Federal investigators plan to descend on tomato farms, warehouses and packing sheds in Florida and Mexico today to search for the cause of a salmonella outbreak that has now sickened 552 people in 32 states and the District of Columbia.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials said they have figured out the route that some of the tainted tomatoes took before reaching consumers.
"Now we know the path those tomatoes have traveled, we're looking all along those pathways," said David Acheson, a top FDA food safety official.
The number of illnesses increased by 169 in two days. Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the jump was the result of state health labs stepping up their surveillance of salmonella cases and completing lab work that linked previously collected samples to the outbreak. Texas alone confirmed 134 additional cases. Many of the new cases date back several weeks.
The outbreak is not over, CDC officials said. A person became sick as recently as June 10, after federal food safety officials had issued a nationwide alert warning consumers to avoid Roma, red plum and red round tomatoes grown outside certain regions.
Ian Williams, chief of the CDC's OutbreakNet Team, also told reporters yesterday that he is aware of more recent illnesses that may eventually be linked to the outbreak. So far, no deaths have been officially associated with the outbreak, but a man in his 60s in Texas who died from cancer was infected with the outbreak strain; the infection may have contributed to his death.
Food safety officials initially suspected Florida and Mexico as likely sources of the tainted tomatoes because they are the main suppliers of fresh tomatoes to the United States in April, when people began getting sick. Officials have been able to clear dozens of states and a handful of countries based on the timing of their tomato harvest. A complete list of safe areas is at http://www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/tomatoes.html.
Acheson stressed that investigators have not identified a particular farm or warehouse as a source and that the contamination could have occurred at any point between cultivation and consumption.
"That's why it's so critical to go to all points in this distribution chain and not just farms where harvesting may have stopped," he said. "We've got to continue to be aggressive on this."
A new cluster of cases in Texas might also help FDA officials narrow the list of potential sources. Clusters provide more information than isolated individual cases and allow investigators to work their way down the distribution chain more quickly and with greater confidence.
Tomatoes are especially difficult to trace, Acheson said. In this case, they did not come with the bar codes that the bags of spinach did in the E. coli outbreak two years ago that ultimately led investigators to a farm in California.
Acheson would not say specifically where the investigators were headed this weekend, nor the number of personnel assigned to the probe.
"We're just going to put the resources needed to get the job done," he said.