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Tomatoes Pulled From Shelves Over Salmonella

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers Saturday that certain types of tomatoes — including the Roma, plum and round varieties — were linked to a salmonella outbreak. Several major restaurant and grocery chains then stopped selling those varieties.

Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached are safe to eat, the FDA said on its Web site.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that 167 people infected with salmonella with the same “genetic fingerprint” have been identified since mid-April, according to the Associated Press. At least 23 people have been hospitalized.

A 67-year-old cancer patient in Texas who health officials said was sickened by salmonella at a Mexican restaurant is believed to be the first death associated with the outbreak, the AP reported.

The death of Raul Rivera has been officially attributed to his cancer, but Houston health department spokeswoman Kathy Barton told the Houston Chronicle that salmonella was a contributing factor.

As a result of the salmonella outbreak, the nation’s tomato industry has been hit hard.

Florida’s tomato industry, the largest in the country followed by California, produces a crop valued at $500 million to $700 million annually, Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a cooperative, told Reuters.

“We probably have $40 million worth of product we can’t sell. We’ve had to stop packing, stop picking,” Brown said.

Fast-food chains McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King as well as retailers Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Wegman’s, Trader Joes and Kroger are among those who stopped using or selling tomatoes until the source of the outbreak is clearer. Chipotle Mexican Grill stopped serving its tomato salsa.

The FDA has announced it is working with states, the CDC, the U.S. Indian Health Service and various food-industry trade associations to determine the source of the tomatoes associated with the outbreak.

“We are working hard and fast on this one and hope to have something as quickly as possible,” FDA spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said Monday.

So far, New Mexico and Texas have reported the most cases of salmonella sicknesses. Other states reporting illnesses including Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

Salmonella is a bacteria that lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals. It can be transmitted to humans when fecal material from animals or humans contaminates food. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain and resemble the flu. They generally appear within 12 to 72 hours after eating infected food, according to the CDC.

The AP reports that cooking tomatoes at 145 degrees will kill salmonella and that ketchup and cooked sauces are not affected by the outbreak.

Salmonella poising, however, can be fatal to young children, pregnant women and others with weakened immune systems.

U.S. Health Secretary Michael Leavitt said on Monday that the Bush administration has asked Congress to allot an additional $275 million above its current budget request for federal food safety programs, according to Reuters.

The White House first requested an FDA budget of $2.4 billion for the 2009 fiscal year starting in October, a 5.7 percent increase over last year’s budget.

The FDA presently faces criticism for inadequacies in staffing, inspections and technology.

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