July 18, 2008

FDA Says Tomatoes OK To Eat Again

Red, juicy tomatoes on salad, pizza, and hamburgers are once again safe to eat, according to the U.S. government who said Thursday the record salmonella outbreak is slowing down.

The Food and Drug administration warned that while tomatoes may be ok to consume, hot peppers are now under scrutiny for causing salmonella. Elderly and people with weak immune systems are warned to avoid fresh Serrano's and jalapenos plus any dishes that contain fresh salsa.

Government investigators have not located the source of the salmonella outbreak, which has sickened 1,220 people in 42 states. The first person was sickened on April 10 and the latest so far, on July 4.

But Thursday's announcement came as the tomato industry estimates its losses at more than $100 million. The government said that tomatoes harvested in the spring are not yet cleared. Dr. David Acheson of the Food and Drug Administration says it just means that the tomatoes in fields and stores today are safe to eat.

Acheson said, "This is not saying that anybody was absolved."  But, "as of today, FDA officials believe that consumers may now enjoy all types of fresh tomatoes available without concern of becoming infected with salmonella Saintpaul," the outbreak strain.

In the beginning, the FDA found strong evidence linking certain raw tomatoes to the sick, Acheson stressed. However, inspectors have failed to find the outbreak strain of salmonella Saintpaul on any farms including areas of south Florida and parts of Mexico. 

Since the alleged tomato scare, more evidence has surfaced against fresh jalapenos.  The FDA sent inspectors to a Mexican packinghouse that supplied peppers linked to a cluster of those illnesses.

Fresh cilantro is also a salmonella suspect.

Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there are signs that the outbreak is slowing.

The CDC studied the dates when the ill say they fell sick. Illnesses steadily rose between April and mid-May. Then between May 20 and June 10, the outbreak hit a plateau, with about 33 people a day becoming ill. From June 11 to June 20, that dropped to 19 people a day becoming ill.

The statistics are delayed, 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.

For every salmonella case the CDC confirms, it says there's an estimated 30 to 40 more that go undocumented.


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