July 18, 2008

Salmonella Warnings Lifted on Tomatoes

By Elaine Walker, The Miami Herald

Jul. 18--Consumers can start eating all types of tomatoes again without worries about getting sick.

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday lifted its salmonella warnings on tomatoes, while advising at risk consumers to limit their consumption of fresh jalapeno and serrano peppers. The warning applies to infants, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

The FDA's decision is a step in the right direction for Florida tomato growers, who have been lobbying the federal government to lift the consumer warning. Florida growers, who produce more fresh-market tomatoes than any state, estimate the salmonella outbreak may have cost them as much as $100 million.

"Lifting the warning on tomatoes is about as good as you're going to get from the FDA," said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a cooperative representing more than 90 percent of the state's growers. "That's the first step in rebuilding public confidence and rebuilding the market."

But the federal government still doesn't have any answers about what caused the salmonella outbreak that, at the most recent count, has sickened 1,220 people and hospitalized at least 224 people. The outbreak started in April and the latest illness was reported on July 4.

Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for foods, cautioned that the lifting of the warning does not mean that tomatoes -- including those from Florida -- have been cleared in connection with the outbreak.

"This is not saying that anybody was absolved," Acheson said.

Early evidence still shows a strong connection between people who got sick and eating tomatoes. But after collecting nearly 2,000 samples in South Florida and Mexico the FDA was unable to find any traces of the rare strain of Salmonella Saintpaul.

The FDA decided to lift the tomato warning because any tomatoes grown on farms under suspicion during April and May are gone from the supply chain.

The newest evidence has the federal government focusing its attention on peppers. FDA inspectors were dispatched this week to a packing house in Mexico, which has handled peppers from several farms, but not tomatoes.

"We still do not know where the original contamination point was," Acheson said. "It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that the contamination has moved from one type of produce to another."

While the outbreak is continuing, there are signs that it has "decreased in intensity," said Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Between May 20 and June 10, the outbreak hit a plateau, with about 33 people a day becoming ill, according to the CDC. From June 11 to June 20, that number dropped to 19 people a day.

Those are the latest available statistics, because it can take two weeks or longer for the CDC to receive confirmation that someone who is sick actually has the implicated salmonella strain.

In the end, it could easily be two products that caused the illness, federal officials said.

"It's clear to us that tomatoes do not explain all of the cases; jalapenos do not explain all of the cases," Tauxe said. "We are seriously considering a hypothesis that might involve more than one produce type."

But some Florida tomato growers say they will not be able to breathe easy until their tomatoes are completely cleared.

"This is a baby step forward, but there is still a lot more to accomplish," said Jim Grainger of Grainger Farms. "If Florida tomatoes don't get cleared that leaves doubt in the minds of consumers when we come back to start shipping again in October."


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