July 8, 2008

Probe of Tomatoes Expands / Officials Are Looking at Other Produce in Search for Source of Salmonella

Health officials are expanding their investigation beyond tomatoes and into other produce as they search for the source of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened 869 people over nearly three months.

As reports of victims continue to grow across 36 states, long after many tomato producers finished harvesting, officials at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters in a conference call yesterday that they are activating an emergency network of food laboratories to help look deeper into produce commonly served with tomatoes.

They refused to specify what other produce they were examining.

The most recent onset of infection was June 20, said Dr. Robert Tauxe of the CDC, and at least 179 people became ill during the month.

But health officials are staying tight-lipped about where the victims live and what they ate, saying only that they were examining several clusters of cases and that more than half of the reported cases have been in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Tomatoes still are the lead suspect, as case studies have shown that 80 percent of victims reported eating the fruit, Tauxe said.

"Tomatoes aren't off the hook," said Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods for the FDA.

But the culprit's trail is convoluted and the pace of tracking "has been frustratingly slow," he said. Acheson chided the produce business for its paper-based records, saying there is a "critical need for the industry to modernize its practices."

During the weekend, disease detectives with the CDC 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.

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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 yesterday there's a growing misconception in the public that if tomatoes really were to blame, the outbreak would have lasted only 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 conducted rapidly in New Mexico and Texas, the outbreak's center, Tauxe said.

Those kinds of studies compare the sick to people who otherwise are 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.

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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 - www.fda.gov - for an updated list.

Also safe are grape tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached.

However, that advice is coming under fire as well, 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.


Originally published by Wire Reports.

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