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Salmonella Concerns Prompt Widespread Tomato Recalls

June 10, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Concerns over salmonella contamination have led the FDA to issue nationwide health warnings for tomatoes. This in turn has led to many vendors recalling or prohibiting the use of tomatoes in their products. A food safety journalist discusses the tomato health scare.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Americans eat some 8 billion pounds of fresh tomatoes each year. And today, federal regulators are trying to pinpoint where this salmonella outbreak came from.

DR. ANDREW VON ESCHENBACH, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner: Ultimately, what we want to find is, where is the source of the problem and what needs to be done to eliminate the problem?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Since mid-April, the Centers for Disease Control reported almost 170 people have fallen ill, about two dozen of them hospitalized from a rare strain of salmonella called St. Paul.

Health officials said a 67-year-old cancer patient in Texas died. He was believed to be sickened by tainted tomatoes. Seventeen states from California to Virginia have been affected.

J.D. HANSON, Center on Food Safety: This could affect the whole country. I mean, we’re talking about tomatoes grown by large commercial firms that get shipped everywhere.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Food and Drug Administration has identified three types of raw tomatoes to avoid: plum, Roma, and round red tomatoes. The FDA says cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, and tomatoes sold on the vine are safe to eat.

SHOPPER: I’ve been buying tomatoes here for years. I’m not worried a bit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some of the nation’s largest restaurant and grocery chains, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wal-Mart, and Ralph’s have pulled the affected tomatoes from their shelves and menus.

SHOPPER: I’m surprised that they didn’t take them off the shelves before people got sick. That would be the government’s job to protect us, and now it’s too late.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Retailers hope to avoid a repeat of the E. coli breakout in spinach two years ago that sickened 200 people. Many consumers stayed away from spinach for months after the outbreak.

And the economic consequences of this episode are already being felt. Farmers in Florida warned today that $40 million of tomatoes in that state, the nation’s largest producer of tomatoes, will rot on the vine until the source of the outbreak is identified and the state’s produce is cleared.

Source of the recall

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on this, we turn to Elizabeth Weise. She's a food safety reporter for USA Today. She joins us from San Francisco.

Elizabeth Weise, what is known about what set this off?

ELIZABETH WEISE, USA Today: Well, at this point, we don't know exactly what did set it off. We know that salmonella is endemic in the environment. It's mostly in reptiles, so you'll see it in snakes, frogs, ponds, drainage ditches.

It exists in those animals without hurting them; the problem is if it gets on fruits or vegetables that we eat. And presumably that's what happened.

You have an infected animal that somehow comes through defecation, got into the water that got onto the tomatoes. Those tomatoes then were presumably washed in a big vat, and that infected other tomatoes.

It's large enough that it probably happened at a packer or a shipper, probably not just in one field, because it's hit so many states over a fairly long period of time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much is known at this point about where this started? The FDA is saying they're still investigating.

ELIZABETH WEISE: It's a little unclear. At this time of -- the epidemic started late April. At that point, most of the fresh tomatoes that we would have been eating in the U.S. would have come from either Mexico or Florida, so it's probably coming from those two places, but we don't know.

A lot of places, fields wouldn't have had ripe tomatoes actually be selling in April, so that's not the issue. It's probably coming from one of those two places, because, again, it's large. And it wouldn't just somebody's backyard tomato field, clearly.

Tracking outbreaks

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, why taking so long? I mean, the FDA -- they've known about this, what you said, since late April, but it wasn't until last week that they made a public warning about this.

ELIZABETH WEISE: Well, actually, that's how it works in these epidemics is -- so what happened was we first saw this in New Mexico. And in New Mexico, they had a couple of little clusters. They noticed those clusters. They were paying attention to them.

There's a wonderful system called PulseNet, which is the CDC's national tracking system for diseases. PulseNet picked up a couple of these little clusters in Texas. Those kind of went along for a while. And then suddenly it's kind of like mushrooms after a rain. It started to show up in a few more states, in a few more states.

FDA actually issued a statement about just Texas and New Mexico, because it was clear something was going on there. I believe it was on the 3rd. And actually relatively quickly, on Saturday is when they issued the first national alert, so that ramped up very quickly.

And it's one of these things where, when you get salmonella, it takes probably three days for you to get sick after you've ingested something. You're going to be sick for three days to a week. It's going to take a while for the doctors to start reporting it. So there's always this long lead time.

What's interesting in this outbreak, often CDC and FDA don't actually know that the outbreak is ongoing until it's over. In this instance, it's pretty clear that it's still ongoing and they've caught it while it's happening, and it looks like they were able to stop it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, quickly, just remind us, salmonella does what if you ingest it?

ELIZABETH WEISE: Salmonella is a bacteria. This is salmonella St. Paul. There's many varieties of salmonella. As I said, it lives just fine in frogs, reptiles, amphibians. When humans ingest it, it can make you sick, generally speaking won't kill you.

FDA and the CDC say it will make you want to die, because you just are horribly ill. You have fever, abdominal cramps, and pretty bad diarrhea that can go on for up to a week.

Most people who are healthy do just fine. I mean, they stay at home; they drink a lot of water; and they'll be fine probably in about a week. They don't need to go to the hospital. They don't need to go to their doctor.

The problem is for the very young, the very old, people who have compromised immune systems, they can actually get very ill. Dehydration is a problem. And those are people who need to contact their doctor or their health care professional pretty quickly.

And the one gentleman who may have died because of this, he was actually a cancer patient.

Identifying tomatoes at risk

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Beth Weise, we know that they've identified three I guess varieties of tomatoes that they say they are safe: tomatoes on the vine, and then the little so-called cherry tomatoes and then grape tomatoes. How do they know those are safe and the other types are not?

ELIZABETH WEISE: Well, when you do this kind of epidemiological trace-back -- and I've talked to the people in New Mexico -- you basically sit down with people who got sick and you give them an incredibly long list of everything they might conceivably have eaten.

It's remarkable how rarely we actually remember everything that we ate. But if you interview enough people who got sick, you can start to kind of focus in. And if you start to see that 90 percent of the people who were sick had said that they had eaten tomatoes, and then you start asking them, "Well, what kind of tomatoes did you eat?"

And if it turns out that, you know, only five of them out of some large number had eaten grape tomatoes, you can kind of push that off the list. So it's really a process of elimination.

The head of the epidemiological -- the state's Department of Health in New Mexico and Texas, they really said this was old-fashioned, shoe-leather epidemiology, going out to the hospitals, going out to people's houses, sitting down with them, and running through really long lists of foods to figure out what it was that made them sick.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, again, the tomatoes that are suspect are so-called round red tomatoes, the Roma tomatoes, and plum tomatoes. What should people do if they have these already in their home, they're sitting on a shelf, on a cabinet, or they're in the refrigerator?

ELIZABETH WEISE: Well, presumably, you don't know where they came from. And in that instance, you have two options. You can either throw them away or you can cook them.

Salmonella, unlike E. coli, for example, actually responds very well to cooking, kills it. Get it up to 145 degrees for 15 seconds, it's fine, so you can make, you know, pasta sauce, anything where you cook the tomatoes and you'll be OK.


ELIZABETH WEISE: And you also want to make sure...


ELIZABETH WEISE: You also want to make sure that, when you buy tomatoes, wash them carefully.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Always. And just finally, Beth Weise, a sense that the FDA is close to figuring this out or is that impossible to know?

ELIZABETH WEISE: You know, it's impossible to know. I've talked to people at state departments of health, and they kind of intimate that they're starting to be able to triangulate in on where this is coming from, but it really just depends on how quickly they're able to get pieces of information from all over the country and figure out -- I mean, basically you're doing trace-back. You're working backwards.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Elizabeth Weise, USA Today, thank you very much.

ELIZABETH WEISE: You're so welcome. Thank you.