July 18, 2008

FDA Official Says It’s Safe to Eat Tomatoes Again

By Julie Schmit

Federal officials said Thursday that all tomatoes on the U.S. market are safe to eat but they still don't know what's causing a salmonella outbreak that's sickened thousands over the past three months.

Jalapeno and serrano peppers remain the focus of the Food and Drug Administration's investigation. The FDA repeated warnings that consumers at high risk, such as the very young and old, avoid eating them.

FDA inspectors are examining a pepper-packing shed in Mexico, which gets peppers from numerous farms in Mexico, FDA officials said. However, the shed has not been implicated in the outbreak.

Mexico is a major supplier of jalapenos and serranos to the U.S. Since late June, shipments of Mexican hot peppers have been tested for salmonella at U.S. border checkpoints before the FDA clears them to be sold.

Based on reports from sick consumers, tomatoes were identified in early June as the likely source of what's become the largest food-borne illness outbreak in the past 10 years. The FDA didn't absolve tomatoes Thursday, but it said none on the market now could be responsible.

David Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for foods, said it's possible tomatoes caused some illnesses and that it's impossible to prove that they didn't cause any.

The tomato warning, issued for some varieties of raw, fresh tomatoes, likely cost the industry millions of dollars, trade associations say.

Demand has picked up recently as the investigation shifted to peppers, but demand for red round tomatoes, the best seller in the fresh market, is still off 30% to 40%, growers say.

Prices are down 50% from before the warning, says Ed Beckman, president of the California Tomato Farmers. Florida, which lost much of its harvest to the early warning, produces the most fresh tomatoes and California ranks second.

California grower Tim Horwath welcomed the FDA's announcement, but he says some consumers will still avoid tomatoes. "The FDA should say it's made a mistake," says the president of Gonzales Packing.

Confirmed illnesses linked to the outbreak number 1,220 in 42 states, the District of Columbia and Canada. As is typically the case, health officials suspect many other cases have gone unreported. New cases are still being found, but the rate has slowed, said Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>