Search for salmonella in vegetables is a long process


August 12, 2008 - 12:00 a.m.


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Fresh fruits and vegetables don’t grow with barcodes or labels, said Emily Palmer, a spokeswoman with the Texas Department of State Health Services.

“You can’t trace them instantaneously to a manufacturer, much as you could a can of beans or something like that,” she said.

And that means long hours and weekend work for some employees at the state health services department, as they continue investigating recent cases of salmonella saintpaul.

Between April and Friday, 1,401 cases of the illness have been been identified, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site, with 554 cases in Texas alone.

Those infected with salmonella typically experience diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, according to the CDC Web site, and the illness usually lasts between four and seven days. Most people recover without treatment, the site said, but if infection does occur, it can spread into the bloodstream and other areas of the body, possibly leading to death.

Foods recently suspected of carrying the illness include Roma tomatoes, cilantro, jalapeños and serrano peppers and, Palmer said, research can take a while.

Palmer said consumers are still advised not to eat jalapeño and serrano peppers grown or packed in Mexico, although those grown in the United States are safe. Tomatoes are still potentially linked to salmonella, she said, although those currently on the market are safe.

“We have a very systematic way of doing it,” Palmer said. “They are very specific comparisons.”

The state health department tracks Texas’ salmonella cases, Palmer said, in a three-phase investigation.

First, she said, they send samples to the state laboratory in Austin to determine the particular strain of salmonella.

Next comes the epidemiological stage, she said, where they speak with people infected with salmonella to determine some connectivity between what people said they ate before getting sick. This phase includes an approximately 20-page interview and can introduce hurdles, she said, if people don’t remember everything they’ve eaten.

“Most people don’t have (the food) sitting around their house a week or so later,” Palmer said. “It either was eaten entirely or it got old and was thrown out.”

Once that phase is complete, she said, the health department begins its regulatory program, analyzing supplier, grocery store and restaurant documents. Finally, that information goes out to other states, the United States Food and Drug Administration and the CDC.

The outbreaks have been spread throughout 43 states, the District of Columbia and areas of Canada, Palmer said, which also slows the investigation up.

There is no central list of where foods come from, she said, and when the health department does its trace-backs, they have to ask where the foods come from.

“And they may have gotten their tomatoes from three different suppliers,” Palmer said. “Or the supplier may have made up a package of perfectly-sized tomatoes that came from 10 different growers. So that’s the kind of issues we’ve been dealing with.”

Ruben León said he hasn’t lost business because of the investigations, but admitted he’s ready to see them end.

“Especially in a Mexican restaurant, you use a lot of tomatoes and jalapeños,” said León, who owns Las Palmas Mexican Cafe on Main Street. “We use them in the pico de gallo and all of the hot sauces. All the time.”

Customers haven’t complained, he said, although they have asked questions.

In his three and-a-half years owning the eatery, León said he’s never experienced the recalls and warnings like he’s seen recently. And while he may not like them, the restaurant handled the issues as they came up.

“We used the canned tomatoes for about two weeks,” he said. “That’s a little different flavor, but sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Safety tips

The CDC recommends the following food safety tips to keep consumers safe:

Refrigerate produce within two hours or discard cut, peeled or cooked items.

Avoid purchasing damaged produce. Discard foods that appear to be spoiled.

Wash all fruits and vegetables under running water.

Keep produce that will be eaten raw away from raw meats, seafood and other produce items.

Thoroughly wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and counter tops with soap and hot water when switching between foods.

Source: The Centers for Disease Control Web site


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