By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
The tomato investigators are stumped.
Over the past four weeks, they have pored over records, collected hundreds of samples and interviewed dozens of patients to find the cause of a salmonella outbreak. So far, their efforts haven't produced an answer, and they have begun to question whether their prime suspect -- raw tomatoes -- has been wrongly accused.
Officials with the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said yesterday that tomatoes still lead the list of potential culprits, but they are expanding their probe to include other types of produce that are commonly served with tomatoes.
"The tomato trail is still hot," said David Acheson, a top FDA official. "It's a question of whether other items are getting hotter."
Acheson wouldn't identify what other fruits and vegetables investigators are looking at. However, CDC officials said previously that many of the people who fell ill had eaten raw tomatoes in salsa and guacamole.
The outbreak has sickened 869 people in 36 states and the District of Columbia since mid-April.
Despite a bigger focus on other fruits and vegetables, FDA officials said they are not changing their warning that consumers avoid red plum, Roma and red round tomatoes not on the vine that were grown outside certain areas.
The admission that tomatoes might not be the cause of the outbreak angered tomato growers in Florida and the restaurant industry, which said they have racked up multimillion-dollar losses. Investigators have spent nearly two weeks visiting fields, packing sheds and warehouses in Florida and Mexico, the primary suppliers of raw tomatoes to the United States in mid-April, when people first started getting sick.
"We might have added every other vegetable in the country," said Reggie Brown, executive vice president with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. "This is crazy, absolutely crazy."
Investigators felt the need to broaden the probe, Acheson told reporters, because more illnesses have been reported since the FDA issued its warning about tomatoes June 7. The latest person infected with the outbreak strain, known as Salmonella saintpaul, fell ill June 20.
Symptoms of salmonella infection include bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever.
Since raw tomatoes have a shelf life of about two weeks, the fact that more people have fallen ill suggests tainted produce is still reaching consumers, Acheson said.
Tomatoes were singled out early in the outbreak investigation based on interviews with some of the first patients in New Mexico and Texas. That suspicion was borne out in subsequent interviews with patients in other states. Robert Tauxe, a top official with the CDC, said of the people interviewed so far in all of the states, 80 percent had consumed raw tomatoes, compared to 50 percent of a control group of people who didn't get sick. But the information gleaned from patients is only as good as their recollection.
"It is like a detective trying to solve a case. We often have to rely on people's memory of things that are not very memorable, such as what they ate last week or the week before," Tauxe said. "They may not realize or remember that the things they ate have many different ingredients."