Food and Drug Administration food safety chief, Dr. David Acheson, said during the same announcement that tomatoes remain the top suspect. "The facts keep changing here. The outbreak is continuing," he said. "We need to re-examine all parts of this system and make sure that the consumer message is still solid."
Persons infected with Salmonella usually develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection, with the illness lasting four to seven days. Severe cases can even result in death. The elderly, infants, and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to develop the illness after exposure. Antibiotic treatment may be necessary in certain cases.
Of the persons who have been interviewed thus far, those infected range in age from one to 88 years, and 47% percent of them are women. Most said they ate raw tomatoes from either restaurants or supermarkets before becoming ill between April and May of this year. But now the investigation is getting a bit broader and includes not just tomatoes; partially driven by the fact that the latest victim became ill on June 15, which is weeks after the government warning stripped supermarkets and restaurants of many tomatoes.
To review, Salmonella Saintpaul illnesses have been confirmed in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.
The FDA first limited its concerns to residents of Texas and New Mexico, but recently expanded its warning to the nation level. Consumers nationwide are now being advised to avoid eating raw Roma or red round tomatoes, unless they are coming from areas that have not been associated with the outbreak. Consumers should also be advised that raw tomatoes are used in the preparation of certain dishes like pico de gallo, fresh salsa, guacamole and fillings for other dishes.
Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, and those sold attached to the vine or grown at home are still considered safe to eat. Raw red plum, Roma and red round tomatoes from areas listed on the FDA website,http://www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/tomatoes.html, are considered safe to consume as well.
Retailers can advise their customers to avoid purchasing tomatoes that are bruised or damaged. They can also encourage them to wash their tomatoes under running water, keep their raw tomatoes separate from raw meats and produce, and refrigerate within two hours if cut. Another tip? Cooking tomatoes thoroughly can help kill theSalmonella bacteria.
The last major outbreak of Salmonella in tomatoes was back in September of 2006. In this case the strain was Salmonella Typhimurium. The September 2006 outbreak, stemming from tomatoes consumed in restaurants, resulted in 183 cases in 21 states. Twenty-two people were hospitalized and there were no reported deaths.
In response to recurring Salmonella outbreaks associated with fresh and fresh-cut tomatoes, the FDA launched a Tomato Safety Initiative last summer. Modeled after the 2006 Leafy Green Safety Initiative, the program is designed to focus food safety efforts on specific products, practices and growing areas. The goal of initiative is to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness associated with fresh produce consumption.
The Tomato Safety Initiative looked closely at Virginia farms and packing facilities in 2007. Investigations are now underway in Florida, and all points of the supply chain are being examined. Environmental factors like irrigation water and animal proximity to growing fields are being studied too. Results of the study are expected later in the year.
During the 2006 to 2007 growing season, the value of Florida tomatoes at the farm exceeded $403 million. The average price per pound for the season was about 31 cents. Prices varied from a low of 16 cents per pound in December of 2006 to a high of 64 cents per pound in May of 2007.
Florida and California produce two-thirds to three-fourths of all commercially produced fresh-market tomatoes in the US. Florida produces the majority of fresh market field-grown tomatoes in the US from December through May, accounting for 50% of all domestically produced fresh tomatoes annually.
California is the leading producer of all tomatoes in the US, accounting for 95% of the processing crop and just under one-third of the fresh crop. Georgia, Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New Jersey are other major fresh-market producers. Americans consume three-fourths of their tomatoes in processed form.