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Officials Expand Salmonella Investigation As Tomatoes Reappear in Stores

July 7, 2008

By Melissa McEver, The Brownsville Herald, Texas

Jul. 5–As federal and state health investigators try to crack the case of a multi-state salmonella outbreak and its origins, the top suspect is reappearing on store shelves and in some local restaurants.

Some varieties of fresh tomatoes are available again at grocery stores and restaurants, although the tomatoes are coming from regions cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, managers said.

“The tomatoes on our shelves are not from suspected growers,” said Shelley Parks, spokeswoman for HEB in South Texas. In June, HEB stores recalled all Roma and red round tomatoes, which health officials advised against consuming.

This week, an HEB store in Harlingen had Roma and red round tomatoes imported from Mexico, but also displayed a sign saying the tomatoes were from Mexican states cleared by the FDA. Cherry and vine-ripened tomatoes, which health officials have said are safe to eat, also were plentiful at the store.

Health investigators have said that tomatoes grown in 41 states, including Texas, and seven countries are safe to eat, as well as tomatoes from certain Florida counties and several states in Mexico. Inspectors are still looking at farms in some parts of Florida and Mexico.

As of July 2, 887 confirmed cases of infection with the Saintpaul strain of salmonella have been reported in the U.S. Of those, 354 are in Texas. Two cases were reported in Cameron County.

The multi-state outbreak, in 38 states and Washington, D.C., has continued for two months.

Investigators aren’t just scrutinizing tomatoes in the outbreak anymore.

A CDC spokesman told USA Today on Thursday that investigators are widening their investigation to include the ingredients used in fresh salsa. Commercially produced salsas are not being investigated.

Several clusters of illnesses associated with restaurants led investigators to think other vegetables could be involved, the CDC reported on its Web site.

Fresh salsa can include jalapenos, onions, cilantro and sometimes other produce.

State health investigators are looking into other culprits as well, said Emily Palmer, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The mystery is taking a long time to puzzle out, said Dr. Brian Smith, regional director for DSHS’s Region 11, which includes the Rio Grande Valley.

One problem is the tomatoes that first started the outbreak are likely not being produced anymore because the tomato-growing season is over, he said.

“It’s the hardest (investigation) I’ve ever seen,” Smith said. “We’ve got top-notch disease detectors working on this one, and it’s a challenge.”

Even though some varieties of tomatoes are in the clear, some restaurant managers and importers said customers still seem worried.

Local importers said their tomato supply comes from FDA-cleared regions of Florida and Mexico. Still, at least one importer stopped stocking tomatoes after the salmonella news broke and demand decreased, said Lawrence Kroman of I. Kunik Company in McAllen. The company supplies tomatoes and other produce to wholesalers and grocery stores.

Now that the panic is dying down, and stores are stocking some tomatoes again, the company will start bringing in Roma tomatoes from cleared regions in Mexico, Kroman said.

Fast-food restaurants like Whataburger and McDonald’s have put “safe” tomatoes back in their burgers and salads, spokespeople said.

Some restaurants, however, have kept tomatoes off the menu for now.

“They’re going to continue to be off until we’re sure the risk is gone,” said Gary Hutson, general manager of Logan’s Roadhouse in Harlingen. The restaurant used tomatoes in salads, vegetable skewers and other dishes.

Another restaurant has stopped serving pico de gallo because people have expressed concern.

“People are scared of tomatoes right now,” said Joe Rodriguez, manager at La Playa Restaurant in Harlingen. “The tomatoes we serve are OK, but in people’s minds they’re not.”

The restaurant serves salsa, but the tomatoes are cooked, Rodriguez said.

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