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Tainted tomatoes are under the microscope

FOOD SAFETY

Americans take precautions as the FDA seeks origins of the salmonella outbreak

June 10, 2008|Jerry Hirsch and Tiffany Hsu | Times Staff Writers

Tomatoes disappeared from cheeseburgers. Fresh salsa was suddenly in short supply. Supermarket produce sections were in disarray. Homemakers checked the fridge, and waiters were pressed to explain why certain menu items were simply unavailable.

Amid concerns over a widening salmonella outbreak, the nation's restaurants, supermarkets and consumers faced a bleak tomato landscape Monday.

Locally it all started over the weekend, when the federal government expanded earlier warnings to include 16 states, including California. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration urged consumers to avoid three varieties of tomatoes -- Roma, plum and red round -- and the nation's merchants responded in earnest.

By Monday morning the world's largest restaurateur, McDonald's Corp., joined thousands of other retailers by taking sliced tomatoes off all its sandwiches in its U.S. restaurants until health officials discover the source of the tainted fruit.

Many consumers were already on alert, inspecting their pantries and shopping with care. "I'm concerned, because I want to be able to trust my food sources," said artist Patrick Gerrity, 33, after shopping at a Vons grocery store near his Echo Park home. "It's strange that so much of our food seems to have problems now, since this didn't use to happen in the past."

Food safety officials scrambled to reassure consumers that most tomatoes were safe and that search efforts for the origin of the contaminated tomatoes had moved into high gear.

A rare strain of the microbe called salmonella saintpaul is suspected of causing 145 cases of illness since mid-April.

Two cases were reported in California, one in San Diego County and one in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In Irvine, the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, said that finding the source of the tainted tomatoes "could be a matter of a few days or even longer than that."

The FDA has ruled out tomatoes grown in a number of states, including California. But because tomatoes come from across the nation and Mexico, it can be difficult to determine their origin.

The outbreak comes from tomatoes that could have been grown in a variety of places, Von Eschenbach said as he toured the FDA laboratory where the investigation is underway. He said consumers should avoid eating the varieties of tomatoes in question but could eat cherry and grape tomatoes as well as fruit sold with the vine still attached and homegrown tomatoes.

FDA investigators were also looking at how the microbe contaminated the fruit. The contamination could have been caused by a variety of factors, such as dirty irrigation water or the tomatoes' proximity to animal waste, said Dr. Carl Winters, a food toxicologist and director of the FoodSafe program at UC Davis.

Thorough washing of the tomatoes is no guarantee of protection. Under some conditions, salmonella bacteria can penetrate the skin of the fruit and grow inside, Von Eschenbach said.

Just two states, Texas and New Mexico, account for 95 of the victims. Those states usually receive tomatoes of the type implicated in the outbreak from Florida and Mexico this time of year, said Ed Beckman, president of the California Tomato Farmers cooperative.

The FDA confirmed that Mexican tomatoes were among the samples being tested at the agency's lab in Irvine.

Restaurants, retailers and some schools weren't taking any chances.

At the Cheesecake Factory restaurant in Huntington Beach last weekend, servers were quick to inform customers that the chain had taken tomatoes out of its salads and other selections.

Most supermarket chains have pulled the three kinds of tomatoes on the FDA list from their produce sections, but some were still selling other varieties. Whole Foods Market is still selling tomatoes, and salads and sandwiches that contain the fruit, using none of the varieties linked to the outbreak and only tomatoes that come from places the FDA has ruled out as the outbreak's source. That includes, in addition to California, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Belgium, Israel, the Netherlands and Puerto Rico.

Executives at El Pollo Loco Inc., a chain specializing in Mexican-style grilled chicken, decided Monday morning to pull all fresh tomato salsa from restaurant salad bars and menus as a precautionary measure, spokeswoman Julie Weeks said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District announced it was taking raw tomatoes off menus at cafeterias.

Of the 145 salmonella cases tracked by federal health officials, 23 people required hospital treatment. Cases have been reported in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, the FDA said.

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