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U.S. expands salmonella warning on fresh tomatoes

Officials are still searching for the source of the tainted produce, which has sickened at least 167.

June 11, 2008|Tiffany Hsu | Times Staff Writer

The federal government Tuesday expanded its salmonella warning nationwide about three kinds of tomatoes as more retailers and restaurants stopped offering them and growers said sales were plummeting.

Officials at the Food and Drug Administration said they were still searching for the origin of the tainted fresh Roma, plum and red round tomatoes, though industry insiders and early reports suggested that the field had been narrowed to Florida or Mexico.

"Preliminary information suggests that the tomatoes may have come from Mexico, though the FDA's investigation does not confirm that," said Deborah Busemeyer, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Department of Health. The state alone reports 63 cases of the rare strain Salmonella Saintpaul.

The FDA advised restaurants, grocery stores and food service operators not to sell products made with the three tomato varieties unless they were certain that the fruit was grown in approved states, including California.

Cherry and grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine attached and tomatoes grown at home were not affected.

Frustrated tomato growers said consumers overwhelmingly took the warning as a sign to stay away from all tomatoes, causing many retailers and restaurants to cancel orders.

At least 167 people have been infected, with 23 requiring hospitalization, since mid-April, according to the FDA. Last year, the agency said, only three people came down with the Saintpaul strain.

In Texas last Wednesday, Raul Rivera, 67, died after contracting salmonella from a pico de gallo dish he had eaten at a Mexican restaurant, said Kathy Barton, spokeswoman for Houston's Department of Health and Human Services. But she said the official cause of Rivera's death was cancer and that salmonella was just a contributing factor.

The salmonella bacterium, which causes fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain, is blamed for about 600 deaths each year, according to health officials. Young children and frail or elderly people are most at risk.

Leery consumers seem to be redirecting some of their tomato shopping away from supermarkets and toward farmers markets, where most produce is grown locally in small batches.

Local farmers are seeing an influx in orders, and restaurateurs are increasingly using their farmers market ingredients as a selling point, according to Laura Avery, supervisor of Santa Monica's farmers market program.

"The outbreak will probably be helpful for farmers market business, because we don't buy from out of the country and we don't commingle our produce with other bulk stock," Avery said.

Though the California tomato season is just starting up, growers said they were seeing a sharp downturn in orders. California growers with operations in Florida, where only certain areas have been cleared by the FDA, are "being devastated," and farmers and employees at processing plants across the country are being laid off, said Tom Nassif, chief executive of the Western Growers Assn.

The association's members, based in California and Arizona, grow about half of the nation's produce.

"This outbreak will take down the whole food supply chain," Nassif said. "It could be a half-a-billion-dollar loss, much larger than the loss from the spinach outbreak" in 2006.

Growers nationwide urged health officials to speed their investigation into the origins of the salmonella, before massive quantities of tomatoes that are awaiting sale end up rotting.

"It's unfortunate that the entire country has been blanketed by this event -- there are a lot of fine tomato producers out there producing safe products that will not be purchased," said Lucky Lee, vice president of sales for New York-based Lucky's Real Tomatoes, which buys tomatoes from a cooperative of farmers and handles cleaning, packing and transportation.

Lee said the company, which employs a rigorous sanitizing process, is one of the few that have thrived since the outbreak because of its reputation for clean tomatoes. Most growers have become victims of public alarm, which has forced many restaurants and retailers to shun all tomatoes, even though many varieties are still safe to eat, Lee said.

"The outbreak is the outbreak and it happened, but the management of the information is unfortunate," Lee said. "It's been blown into a level of hysteria."

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Avoid these varieties

Three varieties of tomatoes were singled out for a warning about a salmonella outbreak by the Food and Drug Administration. According to UC Davis plant pathologist Trevor Suslow, they differ in size, shape and firmness:

Red round tomato: The standard supermarket tomato, which includes varieties like the beefsteak and comes in a range of sizes. It is typically larger and juicier than plum and Roma tomatoes and usually globe-shaped.

Plum tomato: Known as a paste tomato because of its high density, making it ideal for sauce. Usually oblong, it has a tougher skin and fewer seed pockets than a round tomato. About 2 to 3 inches long and 1.5 to 2.5 inches in diameter.

Roma tomato: A variety of the plum tomato, usually egg-shaped.

-- Tiffany Hsu

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