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Tomatoes, Cilantro, Jalapeno Peppers, Serrano Peppers, Scallions and Bulb Onions Now Being Investigation in Salmonella Saintpaul Outbreak - Nearly 1,000 Sickened
Posted on July 5, 2008 by Salmonella Lawyer
Source of Article:
According to CNN, ¡°starting Monday, health inspectors will halt the shipment of ingredients common to Mexican cuisine from Mexico to the United States¡± ? this will include cilantro, jalapeno peppers, Serrano peppers, scallions and bulb onions. I assume that it may still include tomatoes.
As for illnesses, the CDC reports that 943 persons infected with Salmonella Saintpaul with the same genetic fingerprint have been identified in 40 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada. Nearly 150 have been hospitalized. The number of ill persons identified in each state is as follows: Alabama (2 persons), Arkansas (10), Arizona (45), California (8), Colorado (12), Connecticut (4), Florida (2), Georgia (24), Idaho (4), Illinois (93), Indiana (14), Iowa (2), Kansas (17), Kentucky (1), Louisiana (1), Maine (1), Maryland (29), Massachusetts (22), Michigan (7), Minnesota (8), Missouri (12), New Hampshire (4), Nevada (11), New Jersey (9), New Mexico (98), New York (28), North Carolina (10), Ohio (7), Oklahoma (23), Oregon (10), Pennsylvania (8), Rhode Island (3), South Carolina (1), Tennessee (8), Texas (356), Utah (2), Virginia (29), Vermont (2), Washington (4), Wisconsin (10), and the District of Columbia (1). One ill person is reported from Ontario, Canada.

According to the CDC, for every one person who is a stool-culture positive victim of salmonella in the United States, there a multiple of 38.5 who are also sick, but remain uncounted. (See, AC Voetsch, ¡°FoodNet estimate of the burden of illness caused by nontyphoidal salmonella infections in the United States,¡±Clinical Infectious Diseases 2004;38 (Suppl 3):S127-34). That means that we are close to poisoning 38,000 people and we do not even know the vector.

The fresh vegetable industry has been beating up on the CDC and FDA in recent days for picking tomatoes as the likely vector - some even ignoring the ill people and asking for government handouts to tomato growers. So, why did the CDC and FDA pick tomatoes? Well, according to the FDA, during the past decade, the consumption of fresh and fresh-cut tomatoes has been linked to at least 12 different outbreaks of foodborne illness (most salmonella) in the United States. Those outbreaks include 1,840 confirmed cases of illness. The majority of these outbreaks have been traced to products from Florida and the eastern shore of Virginia; however, tomato-associated outbreaks also have been traced to tomatoes from California, Georgia, Ohio, and South Carolina. Some examples:

In 1990, a reported 174 salmonella javiana illnesses were linked to raw tomatoes as part of a four-state outbreak. In 1993, 84 reported cases of salmonella montevideo were part of a three-state outbreak. In January 1999, salmonella baildon was recovered from 86 infected persons in eight states. In July 2002, an outbreak of salmonella javiana occurred associated with attendance at the 2002 U.S. Transplant . held in Orlando, Florida during late June of that year. Ultimately, the outbreak investigation identified 141 ill persons in 32 states who attended the .. All were linked to consumption of raw tomatoes.

During August and September 2002, a salmonella newport outbreak affected the East Coast. Ultimately, over 404 confirmed cases were identified in over 22 states. Epidemiological analysis indicated that tomatoes were the most likely vehicle, and were traced back to the same tomato packing facility in the mid-Atlantic region.

In early July 2004, as many as 564 confirmed cases of salmonellosis associated with consumption of contaminated tomatoes purchased at Sheetz Convenience Store were reported in five states: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia, and Virginia. Seventy percent were associated with tomatoes in food prepared at Sheetz convenience stores.

In 2006 two outbreaks of salmonella-tainted tomatoes where reported by the FDA. One was blamed for nearly 100 illnesses in 19 states. FDA also traced tomatoes involved in another outbreak involving 183 people in 21 states. For more information on Salmonella visit and

On the other hand I could not find a Jalapeno outbreak tied to salmonella at all and only two possibly linked to Hepatitis A and Norovirus. Heck, at Virginia Tech researchers found that "Hot pepper oil may prevent salmonella in poultry." Cilantro too, well, in fact studies have shown that salsa kills salmonella? Researchers thought they had identified a compound in cilantro, a key flavor component of salsa and a variety of other dishes, that kills harmful salmonella bacteria and shows promise as a safe, natural food additive that could help prevent foodborne illness, according to a joint study by U.S. and Mexican researchers.

Salmonella probe turns to peppers, cilantro
Last Updated: Monday, July 7, 2008 | 10:42 AM ET CBC News
Source of Article:
U.S. health officials investigating a salmonella outbreak first thought to be linked with raw tomatoes are now examining cilantro and serrano and jalapeno peppers as possible causes.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said Saturday evening that officials are testing the ingredients, which are commonly used to make salsa.
Meanwhile, officials with Mexico's Agriculture Department on Monday refuted media reports that suggested the United States is considering blocking produce imports.
"In Mexico there has been no salmonella outbreak in recent months, and definitely not of the type [of salmonella] being seen in the United States," spokesman Marco Antonio Sifuentes told Reuters.
Canadian officials have confirmed that an Ontarian who recently travelled to the U.S. has the same strain of salmonella identified in the American outbreak. A total of 943 cases have been confirmed in the U.S. The same strain of salmonella is also suspected to have been a contributing factor in the death of a Texas man.
Tomato farmers who have been forced to leave their crops rotting in fields and packing houses estimate losses total about $100 million US.
Salmonella bacteria normally live in the intestinal tracts of animals and birds, but can be transmitted to humans if they eat food contaminated with animal feces. Salmonella causes intestinal problems in humans, resulting in diarrhea, fever and cramps.

Unnamed Maryland Health Official Fingers Jalapeno Peppers as Cause of Salmonella Saintpaul Outbreak
Posted on July 4, 2008 by Food Poisoning Lawyer
Source of Article:
First it was Tomatoes, now it is Peppers? Jonathan Rockoff of the Baltimore Sun has continued on the trail of the likely ingredients of salsa that has sickened nearly 1,000 across the country over the last three months. However, like tomatoes:
So far, none of the jalapenos taken from restaurants and from the homes of those who became ill have tested positive for Salmonella Saintpaul. Echoing federal officials, who said this week that tomatoes remain the prime suspect, the health officials said that tomatoes cannot be ruled out as the cause of the outbreak. Investigators have been collecting samples of another possible suspect, cilantro, though the herb is less likely to be the source, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
One health official involved in the investigation said "loose ends" are keeping tomatoes under suspicion, but the official said they could be accounted for easily. The official said evidence is "piling up" that indicates that jalapenos are to blame. ??"There's certainly no shred of doubt in my mind," the official said. Another health official was more cautious, saying that the evidence is pointing to peppers but that there is not yet enough information to rule out tomatoes. Hmm, now it is clear?

Deconstructing Salsa In Search of Salmonella
Stakes Are High as Probe Widens to Jalapenos, Cilantro, Peppers
Source of Article:
By Annys Shin and Simone Baribeau
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 8, 2008; Page D01
The hunt for the smoking jalapeno is on.
Investigators who spent nearly a month searching for the cause of a salmonella outbreak in tomatoes are now holding and testing shipments of imported jalapenos at the Mexican border in hopes of finding the outbreak strain.
Officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it is premature to declare jalapenos the lead suspect and still list it with tomatoes, cilantro and serrano peppers as one of the common salsa ingredients under investigation. Officials have also stepped up testing of cilantro and serrano peppers, but "there is no specific 'prime suspect,' " FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek said.
As the number of illnesses tops 900, the stakes are high. If federal officials leading the probe wait too long for proof, there's a risk that more people will get sick. But if they single out the wrong food, a mistake could cost an industry millions of dollars. The tomato industry says it has already lost $100 million.
The FDA continues to warn consumers not to eat Roma, red plum and red round tomatoes not attached to the vine if they were grown outside certain areas. Cherry and grape tomatoes and tomatoes on the vine are considered safe.
FDA officials said yesterday that they may change the warning depending on the outcome of the testing. So far, they have not warned against jalapenos.
This is the latest twist in an outbreak that began in April.
Because it takes two weeks for lab tests to confirm the presence of salmonella, it wasn't until May that the number of cases suggested an outbreak. The outbreak spread to 40 states, making coordination difficult among state health officials and two federal bodies, the FDA and CDC. Much of the evidence comes from patient interviews, and memories may be faulty. After the FDA issued its tomato warning in early June, some state and local investigators around the country had doubts about whether tomatoes were the culprit.
Chicago health officials said the roughly 50 cases they have seen implicated salsa. "From Day One, we . . . have been somewhat skeptical about fingering tomatoes," said Department of Public Health spokesman Tim Hadac.
Officials in New Mexico, one of the first states to identify the outbreak in May, also saw a strong link to fresh salsa, including salsa prepared in people's homes.
But officials from the CDC and from New Mexico and Texas -- which also had some of the earliest cases -- eventually decided the evidence pointed to tomatoes as the most likely suspect.
Confidence in the tomato theory began to falter about two weeks ago. People continued to get sick well after the FDA's June 7 warning on tomatoes. Reviews of orders and shipping records didn't lead to a single farm or supplier, as they did in the 2006 E. coli outbreak in bagged spinach. Teams of investigators collected more than 1,700 samples along the tomato distribution chain and none turned up a trace of the outbreak strain, a rare form known as Salmonella saintpaul.
"My concern would have decreased had we clearly found other evidence for tomatoes by this point," Patricia Griffin, chief of the food-borne disease branch of the CDC, told reporters on a June 27 conference call.
FDA and CDC officials then expanded the probe to include other salsa ingredients based on a new round of interviews with people who fell ill after June 1, said CDC spokesman Glen Nowak. Individuals' recollections of what they ate were more likely to be fresher than those who got sick earlier in the outbreak, epidemiological experts said.
Experts in food-borne illness said that of the shortlist of suspects, jalapenos would best fit the timing, duration and distribution of the outbreak.
The strongest indication that raw jalapenos may be the cause has come from a cluster of 29 cases, said people close to the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter. Most of the clusters -- defined as a least two people getting sick after eating in the same location over a short period -- involve Mexican restaurants. Fresh jalapenos were common to many of the clusters, though not all, the sources said.
The way tomatoes are cultivated has further reduced their likelihood as the outbreak source, produce experts said. Depending on the time of year, tomatoes are grown and picked in parts of the United States and Mexico. Since the outbreak began in April, tomato production has shifted to other areas, and it is unlikely that the same rare strain of salmonella could contaminate tomatoes in different places.
By contrast, a jalapeno plant can be picked multiple times over several weeks, and even months, said Jerry Parsons, a horticulture expert with the Texas Cooperative Extension. The United States gets the vast majority of its fresh jalapenos from Mexico, where they are grown year-round and picked by hand. Once harvested, the peppers can last two to three weeks unrefrigerated and several months if refrigerated, Parsons said.
Produce industry insiders, however, doubt that fresh produce is to blame. If a jalapeno field was contaminated, they said, the plants on that field would have stopped producing fruit well before the latest illnesses began. They are angry at what they see as FDA's poor handling of the investigation.
"We all put public health first, but you don't casually crush an industry, deprive poor migrant workers of their pay, bankrupt farmers, have consumers throw out food -- without triple-checking all these things," said Jim Prevor, author of the industry blog the Perishable Pundit.
Chile pepper importers said they are already feeling the effects of the FDA's scrutiny of jalapenos. "I have two full truckloads of jalapenos in my building quarantined because FDA is holding it awaiting analysis," said Will Steele, president and chief executive of Frontera Produce in Edinburg, Tex. "That was as of last Monday, and there are still no results. The salability of that produce in two to three days is gone."
Although many local restaurant owners said the economic impact of the tomato warning has been limited, some owners of Mexican eateries said they have noticed customers staying away.
Jorge Varges, who owns La Hacienda in Springfield, said he initially lost 10 percent of his customers since the tomato warning. Since the probe widened to include jalapenos and cilantro, he said a quarter of his customers have disappeared.
He has begun washing tomatoes, jalapenos, cilantro and spring onions in diluted bleach and twice more in water.
"Our other choice is to switch to canned stuff," he said, "but we like the fresh tomatoes and fresh cilantro."

Consumers' Refrigerators are a Danger Zone for Foodborne Illnesses
Source of Article:
Research shows that only 20 percent of consumers use thermometers, and a mere 30 percent are aware that they should have them in their refrigerators. Several experts addressed home-based food safety issues in ¡°Consumers¡¯ Refrigerators: A Danger Zone¡± Monday at the Institute of Food Technologists¡¯ annual meeting and food expo in New Orleans.
¡°You don¡¯t have to go to a restaurant or to a party to get sick,¡± said Fur-Chin Chen, PhD, a microbiologist at the University of Tennessee. He found a variety of pathogens in a quarter of the refrigerators he inspected during a recent study. Vegetable bins were the most contaminated.
Armed with such information, your home refrigerator can slow you down with more than a stomach ache if you fail to keep your food cold or to eat and store ready-to-eat foods by recommended dates.
¡°There is a disconnect between food safety practices and people¡¯s confidence in preparing foods safely. It¡¯s very hard to change behaviors,¡± said Danielle Schor, RD, and a senior vice president of the food safety division of the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a nonprofit organization that addresses consumer education.
IFIC has taken up issue of safe-refrigeration cause with a customized campaign. The campaign¡¯s main message to consumers is to purchase thermometers, keep refrigerator temperatures at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, and monitor several times a day.
Aside from throwing out ready-to-eat foods by package storage dates, refrigerators need a weekly cleaning, a practice that consumers avoid. One study shows that approximately 50 percent of consumers clean their refrigerators once a month. But because consumers fail to clean thoroughly, scientists say that figure is likely exaggerated.
The best regime is to clean your refrigerator (which shouldn¡¯t be more than 10 years old) inside and out with dish soap once a week. Allow the shelves and drawers to air dry, said Sandria Godwin, PhD, RD, with Tennessee State University¡¯s Family and Consumer Sciences.
Unexpectedly, as education and income increases, risky food-handling practices increase as well, said Sheryl C. Cates, PhD, of RTI International in Triangle Park, N.C. Interestingly enough, panelists couldn¡¯t explain this phenomenon. According to Godwin, many of us, well educated or not, think we know more than we do.
Source: Institute of Food Technologists (IFT)

Food Safety System is 'Badly Broken,' Critics Say
Pete Winn, Senior Staff Writer
Source of Article:
( - Recent recalls and outbreaks of food-borne disease are evidence that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is dangerously close to being unable to guarantee the safety of the nation's food supply, say liberal health policy advocacy groups and the investigative arm of Congress.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recalled approximately 530,000 pounds of possibly tainted beef, and a nationwide effort is underway to take suspect beef off market shelves.
Just one day before, the government's food watchdog announced that it was broadening its investigation into a recent widespread salmonella outbreak to other foods because the agency is no longer sure that tomatoes were ever the source.
Both actions are signs of a system that is not working well, according to Richard Hamburg, director of government relations for the liberal health care policy group, Trust for America's Health.
"American families should be able to put food on their tables that does not make them sick," Hamburg said, "and when contaminated food does hit the market shelves, the government should be able to tell where it came from and why the problem originated."
Government statistics show that 76 million Americans - one in four - are sickened by food borne disease each year. Of these, an estimated 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die, costing the U.S. about $44 billion a year.
Hamburg's group said the amount of food that requires FDA inspection continues to grow - $419 billion in domestic food and $49 billion in imported food - while funding for increased oversight and investigation has failed to keep up.
Meanwhile, the FDA has fewer investigators that are on the job and those who are use methods and technology that are a century old, Hamburg said.
In addition, the FDA is subject to obsolete laws, misallocation of resources, and inconsistencies among major food safety agencies.
"It doesn't add up, and the risks to the American people keep reappearing like clockwork," he added. In June, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) presented a report to Congress that concluded that the FDA is not keeping up with its own Food Protection Plan - a blueprint the agency adopted in 2007 to try to improve food security.
"GAO has looked at the federal oversight of food safety for over 30 years, and what we found is that across the board there's been ineffective oversight, inefficient use of resources, and for that reason, two years ago, we put food safety on GAO's 'high-risk' list," said Lisa Shames, director of the natural resources and environment group at the GAO.
Americans, she said, are also not very confident in the safety of food - 67 percent are worried about the safety of food, according to a Harris Poll.
"There have been a series of outbreaks," Shames said. "Two years ago, there was the outbreak of spinach with E. coli, coming out of California. These outbreaks are costly in terms of deaths and illness, and business is hurting as well."
The FDA is responsible for guaranteeing the safety of the lion's share of the food supply - 80 percent - including all fruits, vegetables and fish. The other 20 percent, beef and poultry, are the province of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Shames said.
The system has become so cumbersome, even the process of deciding which government entity is responsible for monitoring a food product has become "crazy," she said.
"Just to illustrate how crazy this can be, cheese pizzas would fall under the FDA's jurisdiction. Pizza with pepperoni would fall under USDA's jurisdiction for food inspection," Shames told Cybercast News Service.
The image that there are FDA inspectors in every food processing facility is a myth. The FDA needs 1,000 more inspectors, she said.
"There have been many reports, including from FDA's own science board, that have found that FDA's resources haven't kept pace with its increasing responsibilities. There's a general acceptance that FDA is hard-pressed and just doesn't have the funding and staff to be able to meet its oversight responsibilities," Shames added.
Both groups concluded that more funding is needed for the FDA, in the billions of dollars.
"We propose strengthening the FDA with increased funding - and by aligning resources with high risk threats, with the long-term goal of realigning all federal food safety functions," Hamburg said.
Shames said there is currently a mismatch in terms of the federal resources that go towards inspections.
"The FDA may be responsible for 80 percent of the food, but it receives only 20 percent of the funding for federal food inspections," she said. "It's the flip side for the USDA, which is responsible for about 20 percent of the food, but gets 80 percent of the funding."
Conservative policy groups, meanwhile, agree that changes need to be made, but Peter Van Doren, with the libertarian Cato Institute, wonders if the free market might not better protect food.
"The task that the FDA is charged with may be impossible," Van Doren told Cybercast News Service. "When I look at the facilities that would need to be inspected - there are about 65,000 in the United States, and there are many more than that overseas that we import from - it's not clear to me that it's possible to inspect all of them on a reasonable basis."
"Yes, we need more inspection, but it is not clear to me that taxpayers are willing to pay the amount of money it would take to actually do a good job," Van Doren added.
"If there were no FDA, what would firms and farms do to try to reassure the consumer of the sanctity of their processes and the healthfulness of their product?" he asked.
Van Doren said some food distributors, like the Austin, Texas-based natural food grocer Whole Foods, are using new technology that can track where specific foods are actually grown or produced.
The FDA, meanwhile, plans to spend $90 million dollars to implement its Food Protection Plan. Full funding to inspect all 65,000 domestic food firms would call for an increase to $524 million. The agency did not answer a request for an interview.
Food policy groups say there have been more than 700 major outbreaks of food-borne illness in the last decade.
Make media inquiries or request an interview about this article.

Tomato growers fault FDA for losses
Call for better tracking of food-borne illness
By Tom Bayles
July 1, 2008 Source of Article:
To Palmetto tomato grower Bob Spencer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is starting to feel a lot like the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"What Katrina did for FEMA this salmonella thing is going to do for the FDA," said Spencer, vice president of West Coast Tomato, referring to the problems associated with FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina. "They are going to have to be much more prudent before ringing the alarm bell."
Though tomatoes have a "strong association" with many of more than 800 salmonella cases across the nation, the FDA has not confirmed that the fruit carries the illness or that tomatoes were the culprit, the agency said late last week. Of more than 1,700 tomato samples collected so far, none has tested positive for the rare Salmonella Saintpaul strain.
That news came as another shock for an industry contending with a bigger hit to its sales than any natural disaster could bring. Ever since early June when the FDA warned consumers to avoid certain varieties of tomatoes from certain locales, sales of Florida tomatoes have plummeted -- dropping 60 percent by some accounts.
The Florida tomato industry has pegged its potential losses from the salmonella issue at $500 million, about the value of a year's crop.
The FDA had previously cleared some of Florida's growing region, including Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties, and most of the Mexican states thought to be possible suspects.
"You would have thought with more than 800 people sick they would have found a single tomato in someone's fridge that was contaminated," Spencer said.
Lisa Lochridge, a spokeswoman with the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, was quick to point out that last week's announcement by Dr. Patricia Griffin of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that tomatoes may not be to blame does not mean the fruit is no longer suspect.
"It was not an about-face by the CDC," Lochridge said. "There is still a strong association with tomatoes but there may be another source."
Even so, the CDC and FDA need to improve their trace-back methods, or the ways in which they go about determining the origin of a food-borne illness, Lochridge said.
"We need to find a better way to balance protecting the public's health with protecting the health of every important sector of agriculture," she said. "Tomato growers have been devastated by this."
Spencer agreed: "We are not going to sit back and let it pass without dealing with it in a meticulous manner. We are going to find out what the FDA did to make them go forward and make their comments so we can avoid this in the future." West Coast had to discount
its tomatoes up to 60 percent once the FDA cleared the mid-Florida crop from its ban to induce people to buy. More than 50 tons had to be thrown away because they got too old.
Jimmy Grainger, a Myakka City tomato and citrus grower and one of the new owners of Palmetto's Taylor & Fulton packing house, said his industry adheres to a rigorous cleanliness program in which a bare human hand never touches the fruit.
"We go to extremes to package and ship a healthy product," Grainger said. "It's not a perfect world but we do everything we can ensure we are not touching the tomato with our bare hands."
In the fields pickers wear gloves and hair nets. The bins the fruit is put into are sanitized several times a day. Hand sanitizer is available throughout the farms, which are inspected before the harvest for any possible source of contamination, Grainger said.
"We suspected all along that it was a processor," he said. "Or something else."
The winter harvest in Southwest Florida is almost complete. The region's growing season for tomatoes runs from October through June. Most growers already have finished picking their crops, and local tomato packinghouses are winding down.
The most recent reported onset of salmonella illness was June 15, and for each reported case there are likely more that have gone undetected, Griffin said last week. There have been 810 people across 36 states and Washington who have fallen ill since mid-April; at least 95 have been hospitalized.
Tomatoes carrying the bacteria might still be entering the market because of large growing areas, long harvesting periods or unsanitary warehouse conditions, the FDA said.
The government tracked some of the implicated tomatoes to farms in Florida and Mexico, but said contamination could have happened in transit or at a packing station. The agency is still tracking distribution chains.
The repacking process, which causes the mixing up of tomatoes from different farms, is making the investigation especially difficult, the government said.

Anger Rises Over Salmonella Probe
July 1, 2008; Page A1
Source of Article:
More than 11 weeks into a salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds across the U.S., government regulators still have little idea where the outbreak originated. That is causing rising anger among the farmers, distributors and others slammed by slumping sales of tomatoes, the outbreak's prime suspect.
As consumers abstain from tomatoes or find alternatives, one growers association called over the weekend for Congress to investigate the Food and Drug Administration, the lead agency on the case. The National Restaurant Association, the industry's main trade group, says the outbreak has cost the food industry at least $100 million. And as some crops rot on the vine, the problem is threatening to reignite a long-simmering trade dispute between tomato growers in Florida and Mexico.

Investigators from the FDA have fanned out across farms in Mexico and Florida, two top growing regions, and into irrigation, packing, washing and storage facilities in search of the virulent salmonella Saintpaul strain responsible for the outbreaks. All 1,700 samples they collected were negative, the FDA said in a joint conference call on Friday with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The regulators said they can't pinpoint a region, or even a country, where the outbreak might have started. It might even be possible, they said, that tomatoes aren't to blame. Many victims ate tomatoes combined in dishes such as salsa and guacamole. "We continue to keep an open mind about the possible source of this outbreak," Patricia Griffin, the branch chief of enteric diseases epidemiology at the CDC, said on the Friday conference call. Dr. Griffin added: "It's very frustrating to all of us to be so far along in an investigation and to not have an answer."

The outbreak's size -- it is the largest produce-linked salmonella outbreak in the U.S., according to the CDC -- and its duration have prompted a sometimes-reluctant shift in consumer behavior. In Austin, Texas, restaurateur Tony Villegas says he has experimented with pico de gallo, a traditional Mexican condiment made with onions, peppers, cilantro and fresh tomatoes, only without the tomatoes. "It was just green and white," said Mr. Villegas. "It tasted really bad, unless you really like onions."

The mystery, and the resulting economic hardship, stems from the sprawling nature of the U.S. food chain, especially the system of distributing fresh produce. In recent years, fruits and vegetables have been responsible for larger-scale outbreaks on average than meat, poultry or eggs. There have been more than 20 incidents since 1995 linked to lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens. Since 1998, there have been 13 salmonella outbreaks linked to tomatoes alone. Tomatoes are especially vexing because of the complex path they take from field to fork. Because tomatoes are perishable, suppliers typically rely on more than one grower to fill orders. Once the tomatoes come into a processing facility, they're usually sorted based on ripeness, size and grade, not origin. Sometimes, the FDA says, tomatoes picked in Florida are shipped to Mexico for packaging before being returned to the U.S. for sale. Once tomatoes are sliced, diced and mixed for salad bars, deli counters or supermarket salsas, tracking their provenance becomes nearly impossible.

Short of putting bar codes on tomatoes, there's no good way to track their origin, says Ken Albala, a history professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., who writes books about food history.

The FDA relies primarily on growers, processors and retailers of fresh produce to police themselves, an approach that has sparked criticism from consumer groups and even parts of the food industry itself. The Bush administration announced a plan in November 2007 that would allow the FDA to request more authority from Congress, including the power to better trace the source of contaminations. But the agency has made little progress, according to a recent congressional report.

Growers in states most affected by recent outbreaks, such as California and Florida, have taken matters into their own hands. Florida tomato growers, for example, have helped push for new state food-safety regulation that will take effect Tuesday, subjecting themselves to annual inspections and increased training, among other measures.
Zuma Press
The salmonella outbreak announced on June 3 has claimed 228 victims. Some vendors have posted signs that their tomatoes are salmonella free.
Cases of Illness
In the current salmonella case, the rare Saintpaul strain has sickened 810 people in 36 states and Washington, D.C., and may have contributed to the death of a Texas cancer patient.
The FDA said on the Friday conference call that it may never find the culprit. "It's important to control expectations, and it's possible that this investigation will not ultimately provide a smoking gun," said David Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for foods. "That's not that unusual with tomato outbreaks."
Named for Daniel Salmon, the U.S. scientist who discovered it, salmonella is a feces-borne bacteria that can cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. Most people recover without treatment, but in severe cases the infection can cause death if it spreads from the intestines to other parts of the body. Salmonella is often found in raw chicken and can be killed if cooked at high enough temperatures.
Scientists haven't figured out how tomatoes are contaminated. Some experiments show bacteria can enter tomatoes submerged in cold water. Others suggest salmonella-contaminated water can enter through the stem or flower of a tomato plant. For now, the FDA recommends consumers avoid raw red round, red plum and red Roma tomatoes unless grown in a state not yet implicated in the outbreak.
The uncertainly has left consumers jittery and many in the tomato industry angry. Over the weekend, Western Growers, a trade group representing most of the fresh-produce industry in California and Arizona, called for the House Agriculture Committee to investigate the regulators.
"The collateral damage inflicted on thousands of innocent producers in this country by FDA blanket 'advisories,' such as with spinach and tomatoes, cannot go unchallenged," said Tom Nassif, the group's president and chief executive, in a written statement.
Dr. Acheson said the FDA regularly provides updates to the industry and wants to keep consumers abreast. Lisa Lochridge, spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said the scare could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. "The ripple effect is huge: It's not just the growers but everyone on the supply chain -- the packers, the shippers, on down to food service and the retail level."

No. 2 Seller
Tomatoes are the No. 2 seller in grocery stores' produce sections, behind packaged salad, according to Willard Bishop LLC, a retail consulting firm. Attractive tomatoes also provide a "halo effect" that can make the rest of a produce section look good, said Jim Hertel, managing partner at Willard Bishop. That's important to retailers because consumers primarily judge stores on the quality of their produce, he said.
The salmonella outbreak comes as restaurants are undergoing one of their worst periods in decades, as ingredient costs soar and Americans prepare more meals at home. "The restaurant business doesn't need any excuse for customers to stay away," said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of restaurant consulting firm Technomic Inc.
Most major chains have put tomatoes back on the menu after pulling them several weeks ago, after verifying they come from areas cleared by the government. One company identified as part of the outbreak is Adobo Grill, a small Mexican chain with two locations in Chicago. It did not return a call seeking comment.
In recent years, the food industry has pressured the government to resist pointing fingers. Yum Brands Inc.'s Taco Bell is still recovering from being linked to an E. coli outbreak more than a year ago.
The outbreak is also adding to tensions between tomato growers in Florida and Mexico. Mexican imports to the U.S. have soared since the mid-1990s, and Florida growers have lobbied for import curbs and tougher regulation of Mexican tomatoes. Last year, Mexico exported about $960 million worth of tomatoes to the U.S., accounting for almost 80% of the import market.
The rivalry between Mexico and Florida is heated in part because there is overlap in their growing seasons, which run from November to May. California, the other major U.S. player, is a springtime grower.

Mexican Market
Jerry Wagner, director of sales and marketing for Arizona-based tomato importer Farmer's Best International, said many Mexican growers haven't been able to export their crops, and have instead flooded the Mexican market and driven down prices. One grower in Baja left his crop to rot on the vine. "He wound up walking away from a field," Mr. Wagner said.
Even when the FDA gives the all-clear, consumers may take a while to adjust. Sally Lamphier of Vermont, who dispenses gardening advice as a phone representative for retailer Gardener's Supply Co., replaced tomatoes with strawberries in a salad she recently served to friends. The home gardener hasn't ruled out one tomato supplier, however. "I'm anxious for my own to grow," she said.

--Janet Adamy and Ben Casselman contributed to this article.

Salmonella probe adds foods served with tomatoes
By LAURAN NEERGAARD 10 hours ago Source of Article:
WASHINGTON (AP) ? Adding to tomato confusion, the government is about to start testing numerous other types of fresh produce in the hunt for the source of the nation's record salmonella outbreak ? even as it insists tomatoes remain the leading suspect.
Investigators are mum on exactly what other vegetables are getting tracked.
Items commonly served with fresh tomatoes is the only hint Food and Drug Administration food safety chief Dr. David Acheson would give, calling it "irresponsible" to point a finger until he has more evidence that some other food really deserves the extra scrutiny.
"Tomatoes aren't off the hook," he stressed. "It's just that there is clearly a need to think beyond tomatoes."
Still, Acheson widened FDA's probe on Tuesday, activating an emergency network of food laboratories around the country in anticipation of lots of additional samples to test.
The reason is that the outbreak continues, with 869 people now confirmed having taken ill. Most troublesome, at least 179 of them fell ill in June, the latest on June 20. That is more than two months after the first salmonella illnesses appeared, meaning the outbreak is continuing weeks longer than food-poisoning specialists had expected ? and suggesting the culprit is still on the market.
Over the weekend, disease detectives with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began interviewing people sickened in June to find out what they ate and to compare their diets with those of healthy relatives and neighbors. Officials wouldn't reveal early findings, except to say they supported the investigation's new move.
Among the possibilities FDA is exploring is whether tomatoes and other produce are sharing a common packing or shipping site where both might become contaminated, or whether multiple foods might be tainted while being grown on adjoining farms or with common water sources.
Pressure is increasing on the FDA to solve the case, with the tomato industry suffering millions of dollars in losses and pushing for Congress to investigate how the agency handled the outbreak.
But Acheson said Tuesday that there's a growing misconception in the public that if tomatoes really were to blame, the outbreak would only have lasted six weeks.
That's just not true, he said, pointing to farms that rotate harvests so as to keep producing tomatoes for months.
Tomatoes first became a suspect because of what are called "case-control" studies rapidly conducted in New Mexico and Texas, the outbreak's center, CDC food-poisoning specialist Dr. Robert Tauxe said.
Those kinds of studies compare the sick to people who are otherwise similar ? in income, lifestyle, where they live ? but healthy. In those initial studies, about 80 percent of the ill reported eating certain types of fresh tomatoes, far more than the healthy group did, Tauxe said. Statistically, the association was too strong to think it a coincidence.
Some food-poisoning experts say the CDC missed a key step in not taking those studies a step further and trying to trace why some of the healthy ate tomatoes without harm.
For now, the FDA continues to urge consumers nationwide to avoid raw red plum, red Roma or red round tomatoes unless they were grown in specific states or countries that the agency has cleared of suspicion. Check the FDA's Web site ? ? for an updated list. Also safe are grape tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached.
That advice is coming under fire too because tomatoes are sent through multiple repacking and distribution sites around the country, even to Mexico and back, regardless of where they're grown. But Acheson said the advice would be fine-tuned only if new science emerges.
Even Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt expressed frustration Tuesday that the case isn't solved. "Nothing happens fast enough when you have a problem like this," Leavitt said as he asked Congress for more funds and stronger legal powers for food and consumer safety agencies. Still, "I feel confident we will find the solution to this problem." Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

Salmonella Saintpaul reported in Canada
Published: July 7, 2008 Source of Article:
OTTAWA, July 7 (UPI) -- Canadian officials report their first case of a Salmonella Saintpaul infection that matches those associated with a U.S. outbreak of the bacterial illness.
The Public Health Agency of Canada said the unidentified person involved indicated he recently traveled to the United States.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it is also monitoring the outbreak investigation related to Salmonella Saintpaul by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The outbreak might be associated with a food source, particularly certain types of uncooked, fresh tomatoes or products containing raw tomatoes.
"Consumers should be aware that tomatoes grown in Canada have not been implicated in the U.S. investigation," the CFIA said. "As there is no definitive link to a specific food source available in this country, no specific advice is being issued for people in Canada."

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