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Tomato scare clears shelves

FOOD

The FDA warns of a salmonella outbreak, leading to the removal of three varieties from markets and menus.

June 09, 2008|E. Scott Reckard | Times Staff Writer

Restaurants, fast-food chains and supermarkets across Southern California removed fresh red Roma, plum and red round tomatoes from their shelves and took them off their menus this weekend as the U.S. government warned of a widening outbreak of salmonella.

The Food and Drug Administration said consumers should avoid raw red plum, red Roma or round red tomatoes, which have been tied to 145 infections reported since mid-April.

Consumers may continue to eat cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached and tomatoes grown at home, the FDA statement said.

Major supermarket chains including Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons have stopped selling the three kinds on the FDA list. Other types of tomatoes remained for sale, said Brian Dowling, a vice president of public affairs for Vons owner Safeway, based in Pleasanton, Calif. "It's a precaution."

The Albertsons grocery chain had considered stripping its shelves of all tomatoes, a produce manager said. "At first they told us we had to pull everything, but then they narrowed it down," said Justin Peters at the Albertsons store in Laguna Beach.

Fast-food chains, including Irvine-based Taco Bell Corp. and Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., have also stopped offering tomatoes.

The physician who heads the FDA, Andrew C. von Eschenbach, was scheduled to be at an FDA lab in Irvine today, where he was to make a public statement updating news on the ongoing outbreak of salmonella saintpaul, a rare strain of the salmonella microbe, the agency said Sunday.

The agency said last week that it had ruled out tomatoes from many areas, including California, as the source of the salmonella but was still investigating the source of the outbreak.

The 145 infections, including 23 people who required hospital treatment, were reported in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, the FDA said Saturday in the statement.

On Tuesday, the agency had reported 57 cases, including 17 requiring hospitalization.

Salmonella infections can cause fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain, according to the statement. Young children, frail and elderly people and those with weakened immune systems are particularly at risk.

Taking no chances, Chipotle Mexican Grill stopped serving tomato salsa at its restaurants in 33 states, including California, until the concerns abated. The "fresh-Mex" chain posted an advisory to its customers on its website explaining the decision.

"We apologize," the notice said, "but our tomato salsa is temporarily unavailable. . . . Your safety is our top priority. So even though our tomato salsa is completely safe, we have suspended serving it in all of our restaurants as long as there remains any concern about the tomato supply in this country."

Chipotle suggested customers try other salsas -- a less spicy corn salsa or one made from green or red tomatillos. At the start of the year, Chipotle operated 704 restaurants in the 33 states. Founded in 1993, it was part of McDonald's Corp. until October 2006. It is now a separate, publicly traded company.

At Taco Bell, spokesman Will Bortz said, "Strictly as a precaution, we are temporarily not serving tomatoes. Like other restaurants and supermarkets, we are following the FDA advisory warning consumers not to eat certain tomatoes."

At El Pollo Loco Inc., a chain specializing in Mexican-style grilled chicken, spokeswoman Julie Weeks said the company had not yet pulled any tomato products, but "we're following it very closely." Executives planned to hold a meeting on the issue this morning, she said.

The agency is working with state health regulators, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food industry groups and others to determine the source of the outbreak, which "may be limited to a single grower or packer or tomatoes from a specific geographic area," the FDA statement said.

The Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Saturday that investigators from the New Mexico and Texas departments of health and the Indian Health Service had conducted interviews comparing foods eaten by ill and well people. It identified the consumption of raw tomatoes as the probable source of the illnesses in those states. On Thursday, the FDA published a list of regions that are not suspected of having produced the contaminated tomatoes. These areas included California, Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Belgium, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel, the Netherlands and Puerto Rico.

Consumers who are unsure about the source of tomatoes in their homes are encouraged to contact the store or place of purchase for information, the government said.

It also noted that raw tomatoes were often used in the preparation of fresh salsa, guacamole and pico de gallo. They may be part of salads, fillings for tortillas and other dishes.

Restaurants, grocery stores and food-service operators have been advised by the FDA not to offer for sale or service raw red plum, Roma or red tomatoes and products made from these types of tomatoes unless they are from one of the "safe" areas listed above.

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scott.reckard@latimes.com

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