By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008
All types of fresh tomatoes are safe to eat, federal health officials said yesterday, lifting a six-week-old warning that led restaurants to pull them and triggered tens of millions of dollars in losses for the tomato industry.
Officials with the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still do not know the source of the salmonella that set off the largest outbreak of foodborne illness in a decade. They blame raw jalapeño peppers for some of the cases and have dispatched investigators to a pepper packer in Mexico. Last week, they recommended that the elderly, infants and people with compromised immune systems avoid eating jalapeños as well as serrano peppers.
A total of 1,220 people in the United States and Canada have been sickened since April by Salmonella saintpaul, an unusual strain. While new reports of illness are still coming in, the number of cases appears to be dropping off, after peaking during the last few days of May and the first week of June, the CDC said.
Investigators are now confident that tomatoes associated with the warning -- fresh Roma, red plum and vineless red round tomatoes -- in stores and coming to market, are free of the outbreak strain. The tomatoes are coming from farms that were not harvesting in April when the outbreak began, said David Acheson, a top FDA food safety official. Microbiological testing of more than 1,700 samples of water, soil, tomatoes and other items collected from packing sheds, warehouses and fields in Florida and Mexico also found no trace of the bacteria.
However, FDA and CDC officials have not absolved tomatoes as a possible cause of the outbreak and are considering the possibility that both tomatoes and jalapeños have spread Salmonella saintpaul. For more than a week, investigators have been holding and testing shipments of jalapeños coming from Mexico, the source of most fresh jalapeños that are consumed in the United States.
"It is clear to us tomatoes do not explain all of the clusters, do not explain all of the cases . . . and jalapeño peppers themselves also do not explain all the clusters and all the cases," said Robert Tauxe, a deputy director at the CDC.
Acheson said it is possible that tomatoes tainted with Salmonella saintpaul initially made people sick, then contaminated jalapeños that were grown either on the same farm, or handled in the same packing shed or warehouse.
In tracing the source of tomatoes that sickened people, investigators have found points in the distribution chain where tomatoes and jalapeños crossed paths, Acheson said.
The FDA's decision to lift the tomato warning followed a week of lobbying by tomato growers in the United States and Mexico.
"We have said for some time now that there were not tomatoes in the marketplace from areas that were shipping at the start of the outbreak," said Amy Philpott, a spokeswoman for the United Fresh Produce Association. "We encourage CDC and FDA to complete their investigation of peppers quickly so that either the problem can be identified or, if not, these products can be cleared as well."
The FDA had been gradually clearing tomato-growing regions in the United States and Mexico since it issued the warning June 7. As the weeks passed, however, growers argued the warning was becoming moot because it was no longer possible for areas that were harvesting in April to still be producing tomatoes.
Criticism of the tomato warning intensified as people continued to get sick. Investigators began looking at other potential suspects and turned their attention to cilantro and jalapeño and serrano peppers.
By early July, industry leaders said, the tomato market had collapsed. Even though the FDA had cleared certain tomatoes, which returned to store shelves and restaurant menus after a few days, the warning kept consumers away, spreading financial pain across the industry. Growers in northern Florida, South Carolina and other regions that were bringing tomatoes to market as the warning came down were especially hard hit.
Many tomato growers think tomatoes were never the cause of the outbreak and that the FDA and CDC made a mistake.
"The pace of the trace-back process has been frustratingly slow, and as a result the entire industry has suffered significantly for an outbreak it did not cause," Reggie Brown, executive vice president with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, said in a statement.
Acheson defended the investigation, saying FDA and CDC officials based their actions on analyses of information collected from people who got sick and people who did not.
"We stand behind that science that sent us on that tomato track to begin with," he said. "At the time, that was the best information we had."