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Source of outbreak still undetermined

Health officials are hampered in tracing tainted tomatoes by the lack of bar codes or other identifiers.

June 12, 2008|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Federal health and food inspectors so far have failed to find the source of salmonella-tainted tomatoes that have sickened at least 167 people across the nation.

"Obviously the critical question is, where did these specific tomatoes come from? And we're not quite there yet. At this point today, we don't know where they came from," said David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration's associate commissioner for foods.

New reports of illness are still coming in, said Dr. Ian Williams of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "We are still seeing cases," he said. "And we would characterize the outbreak at this point as still ongoing." Here is the latest information.

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Has the FDA found the source of the tainted tomatoes?

No, the investigation continues. Health officials are hampered by the fact that tomatoes don't carry bar codes. Suppliers might get the fruit from multiple farms, and that makes it hard to figure out where the contamination started.

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Did the people who became sick consume their tomatoes at a restaurant or while eating at home?

Both, and that has also made the probe difficult for officials. In many food-borne-illness outbreaks, victims can be quickly grouped by having eaten a certain brand of food or having frequented a specific restaurant or chain. This time the cases vary widely.

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Any suspects?

Investigators are focusing on tomatoes from central Florida and Mexico -- regions that would have supplied the bulk of the fruit on the market in April, when the outbreak started. They also have ruled out all of California and northern Florida, which also are big tomato-growing regions. Those areas were not harvesting at the time of the outbreak and could not have been responsible.

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Is it safe to eat tomatoes?

Yes. FDA officials say grape and cherry tomatoes and tomatoes sold attached to the vine are safe to consume. Any tomatoes grown in California also can be eaten, regardless of the variety.

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What should I avoid?

For now, stay away from the standard round tomatoes and also plum tomatoes, which in some stores are sold under the name Roma.

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How did the FDA figure out there was a problem?

Local and state health officials started seeing an outbreak of a rare form of salmonella in late April. They reported the cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and by May 31 the FDA had linked the illness to tomatoes. All of the cases have the genetic footprint of that rare strain of salmonella. Of the 1.4 million estimated salmonella cases last year, only 25 were determined to be of the Salmonella Saintpaul strain that caused this outbreak, Williams said.

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How many people have become sick?

The CDC said the outbreak has sickened 167 and might have caused one death. However, the agency cautioned that far more people are likely to have been sickened by the tainted fruit but either didn't visit a doctor or didn't have the lab work done to prove a link to that strain of salmonella. Most of the ill are from Texas and New Mexico.

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Have there been previous outbreaks?

Tomatoes are prone to salmonella contamination, health officials said. Since 1990, there have been 13 multi-state outbreaks of tomato-linked salmonella infections. In the instances in which the FDA could find the sources, the outbreaks were generally caused by domestically grown tomatoes.

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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