July 7, 2008

Investigators Look at Farms in Mexico — No Closer to Source of Salmonella

By Olga R Rodriguez

AUTLAN, Mexico - Inspectors are collecting soil, water and produce samples, reviewing export logs and combing packing plants in three major tomato-growing states in Mexico.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration appears no closer to finding the source of a mysterious salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 900 people nationwide. It's not even 100 percent sure that tomatoes are the cause.

A team of three FDA inspectors has gone through five farms in the western states of Jalisco and Sinaloa in the past two weeks, looking at all aspects of tomato production: the greenhouses where they are grown, the packing plants where they are shut into boxes, the shipping methods for the trip north to the U.S.

The inspectors also plan to visit the northern state of Coahuila to finish up their study.

The results can't come too soon for the three Mexican states that were targeted by the FDA, along with farms in Texas and Florida.

Bonanza 2001 farm in Autlan, Jalisco, which normally exports about 12,000 tons of tomatoes a year to the U.S., has hundreds of tons sitting in a warehouse near the Texas-Mexico border because demand has plummeted, said spokesman Luis Almejo.

They might rot.

Sinaloa growers also face big losses.

"We're demanding that they release those results as soon as possible so that Sinaloa can be cleared of any suspicion," said Manuel Tarriba, president of Sinaloa's Tomato Growers Association. Tarriba said he expects to get results by the end of next week.

The U.S. tomato industry has taken a $100 million hit as restaurants temporarily dropped tomatoes from their menus, and farmers have had to plow under their fields or leave crops to rot in packinghouses.

Mexico has not calculated its losses. But growers here worry they still may be under a shadow of suspicion as late as November, when greenhouses harvest their summer tomatoes.

Last week, the U.S. government said it is looking at other vegetables but insisted that tomatoes remain the main suspect in the outbreak.

Salmonella can be transmitted to humans when fecal material from animals or humans contaminates food. Fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps typically start eight to 48 hours after infection and can last a week. Many people recover without treatment. But severe infection and death are possible. At least 130 people have been hospitalized in this outbreak, the CDC says.

In Sinaloa, which grows about 40 percent of all tomatoes sent to the U.S., they checked full operations - including irrigation methods - at four farms, Tarriba said.

He said once Sinaloa is cleared, the state will launch a damage- control ad campaign in the United States.

"We have to gain back the consumers' trust," Tarriba said.



FDA reports more cases

WASHINGTON - The government on Saturday increased the number of people reported being sickened in a record salmonella outbreak in which tomatoes are the leading suspect, although investigators are testing other fresh produce.


There have been 943 reported cases nationwide, with at least 130 hospitalizations since mid-April after the first salmonella illnesses appeared, the Food and Drug Administration said Saturday. That compares with a total of 922 people about two days ago and 869 reported earlier in the past week.

The FDA also said it had begun looking at jalapeno peppers as a possible cause of the outbreak, as well as ingredients used to make salsa such as cilantro and Serrano peppers. Tomatoes continue to be investigated as well, spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek said.

- Associated Press


Originally published by Olga R. Rodriguez Associated Press .

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