July 7, 2008

Tainted Tomatoes Keeping Feds Busy


Dear Action Line: With the FDA now flip-flopping on the tomato salmonella outbreak, as far as identifying its source, how do we wash or prepare tomatoes and other vegetables from the grocery store to make them as safe to eat as possible? -- H.T., Tulsa.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have not "flip-flopped" on tomatoes being suspected as the cause of the recent salmonella outbreak -- they have cleared 42 of our 50 states and 28 of 31 Mexican states. Testing is still being done in eight American and two Mexican states, and the agencies are also looking for "food items commonly consumed with tomatoes: fresh salsa, guacamole and pico de gallo or as part of tortilla fillings."

The latest: Tuesday, CDC said it is "collaborating with public health officials in many states, the Indian Health Service and the FDA to investigate the ongoing, multistate outbreak of human salmonella serotype Saint Paul infections. An initial epidemiologic investigation comparing foods eaten by ill and well persons identified consumption of raw tomatoes as strongly linked to the illnesses.

Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the FDA, said in a press conference Tuesday that "contrary to some of the media statements published suggesting that the federal government is saying tomatoes are no longer linked with this outbreak, that is simply not accurate. So I repeat: tomatoes are still the lead suspect and are a major focus. We are now conducting a new, multistate study comparing where ill and well people remember eating and what they ate, focusing on persons who became ill on June 1 or later."

Consumer advice: The FDA advised consumers Tuesday to limit their tomato consumption to those not likely the source of this outbreak. These include cherry tomatoes; grape tomatoes; tomatoes sold with the vine still attached; tomatoes grown at home; and red plum, red Roma and round red tomatoes from sources listed above.

Consumers are advised not be buy bruised or damaged tomatoes, and discard any that appear spoiled.

Charlotte L. Richert, OSU Extension Family and Consumer Sciences educator in Tulsa, recommends washing produce under running water just before eating, cutting or cooking it. "Scrub firm produce with a clean produce brush. Drying produce with a clean cloth or paper towel may further reduce any bacteria present. Fruit and vegetable washes have not been proven to remove any additional soil. Save your money!"

Outbreak timing: Between April 10 and June 20, 869 people infected with salmonella Saint Paul having the same genetic markers have been identified in 36 states, including Oklahoma, and the District of Columbia. These were identified because clinical laboratories in all states send salmonella strains from ill people to their state public health laboratories for characterization, and these notify the CDC, which in turn notifies the FDA. Confirmed cases by most per state are Texas with 346; Illinois, 91; and New Mexico, 90. Highest in this region is Oklahoma, 23; Kansas, 14; Missouri, 12; Colorado, 11; and Arkansas, 10.

Raw tomato: Tuesday the FDA recommended that grocery stores, restaurants and food service operators offer only fresh and fresh- cut red plum, red Roma and round red tomatoes and food products made from these tomatoes only if grown and harvested from the areas not associated with the outbreak. See the list of 42 states, 19 Florida counties and 28 Mexican states with safe tomatoes at www.tulsaworld.com/goodtomato . Tomatoes grown in Canada, California, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico have tested free of the pathogen.

Submit Action Line questions by calling 699-8888 or by e-mailing [email protected] or by U.S. mailing it to Tulsa World Consumer, PO Box 1770, Tulsa OK 74102-1770.

Originally published by PHIL MULKINS World Action Line Editor.

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