July 18, 2008

FDA Lifts Tomato Salmonella Warning

By Stacey Eidson, The Bradenton Herald, Fla.

Jul. 18--Tomatoes are officially safe to eat again.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lifted its warning to consumers nationwide Thursday concerning tomatoes and an outbreak of salmonella. Federal health officials also announced they have found no evidence of the unusual strain of salmonella, called Saintpaul, at any Florida tomato sites during the recent investigation.

"We are lifting the tomato warning, and we believe consumers can now enjoy all types of fresh tomatoes that are available on the domestic market in the United States," Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods for the FDA, said during a news conference.

However, Acheson stressed the FDA is still looking into a possible link between jalapeno and serrano peppers in connection with the country's largest food-borne outbreak of illness in the last decade.

To date, about 1,220 cases in 42 states have been reported in the salmonella outbreak that began in mid-April, according to Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control. But it appears there is a "decrease in the intensity" of the outbreak, Tauxe said.

Federal health officials still do not know the source of the salmonella contamination and insisted that Thursday's announcement does not mean that tomatoes were never the cause.

"While the first case-control study that was conducted by the CDC did very clearly indicate a strong association between the consumption of certain types of fresh tomatoes and illness caused by the salmonella Saintpaul, it is highly unlikely that any of those fresh tomatoes which were on the market at the onset of this outbreak -- bear in in mind that goes back to mid-April -- are currently on the market in any form," Acheson said.

Bob Spencer, vice president of Palmetto-based West Coast Tomato, said the FDA needs to go a step further in clearing the tomato industry's name.

"We are hoping that the FDA will show good faith and make it clear to the public that we were never implicated in the process," Spencer said, referring to Florida tomato farmers. "They took over 2,000 samples of tomatoes, they went through our packing houses with Q-tips and they never found one tainted tomato or one specimen of salmonella in our packing houses. We feel that it is time for them to admit that tomatoes were not the culprit."

Consumer confidence in tomatoes is not easy to regain, said Ben King, a Myakkka tomato grower.

"I hope the public perception of tomatoes gets back to positive because sales are still way down," he said, adding that the FDA's announcement will help farmers in other states more than Florida. "The tomatoes right now that are being picked are in South Carolina and Virginia. There is not really anything right now being picked in Florida in terms of round tomatoes."

King also questioned the FDA's latest investigation of jalapeno and serrano peppers.

"When it is all said and done I don't really believe it is going to be peppers either because peppers and tomatoes have a very smooth skin," he said, explaining that those crops are washed and inspected. "It is really frustrating because it is so dangerous not to know where it is coming from. But, all I know is, we don't have anything to hide, so I really hope that they find out what exactly happened."

Liz Compton, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture, said the state's agriculture industry was confident from the beginning that Florida tomatoes were safe.

"We never felt that our tomatoes were a source of the salmonella given the fact that we have the strictest production regulations in the nation," she said. "And despite probably more scrutiny than any other state in the nation, the FDA found nothing wrong with Florida farms and we feel that should enable people to have confidence in Florida tomatoes in the upcoming season."


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