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FDA links salmonella to some farms

Suspect tomatoes are traced to several growers in Florida and Mexico. But the source of bacteria is unknown.

June 21, 2008|Tiffany Hsu | Times Staff Writer

Several farms in Florida and Mexico appear to have produced at least some of the tomatoes implicated in what is shaping up to be the country's largest tomato-borne salmonella outbreak, federal health officials said Friday.

But the lengthy search for the source of the bacteria continues, said David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration's associate commissioner for foods, in a conference call with reporters.

Acheson cautioned that the affected Roma, plum and red round tomatoes were not necessarily contaminated on a farm and could have picked up the rare Salmonella Saintpaul strain at a packing station.

The number of victims soared 169 cases to 552 across 32 states and the District of Columbia, making this outbreak one of the most, if not the most, extensive of the country's 13 tomato-borne salmonella episodes since 1990, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The strain has left at least 53 people hospitalized since mid-April and may have contributed to the death of a 67-year-old Texas cancer patient.

"Now that we know the paths that those tomatoes have traveled between the farms and the consumers, we're looking all along those pathways to see where those contaminations occurred," Acheson said.

Investigators will visit the farms this weekend after several trace-backs linking tomatoes to victims, retailers and restaurants, distributors and suppliers. The FDA has not yet implicated the farms, and Acheson said it was extremely unlikely given the rareness of the strain that the salmonella originated in more than one place.

A new cluster of cases in Texas, which claims the bulk of the country's victims with 265 cases, could shed more light on the tomatoes' circulation chain, Acheson said. Federal authorities are searching the entire "spider's web" for a single point where all the affected tomatoes came together.

In another conference call Thursday, Acheson said the FDA was not aware of any cases of tomato-borne salmonella in humans in Mexico, reversing a statement he made this week. But other cases are emerging, with the most recent victim falling ill on June 10, said Ian Williams, chief of the CDC's OutbreakNet team.

There were few details included in the updates: Acheson declined to say where the farms are located in Florida and Mexico or how many there are. The origin and number of cases in the Texas cluster are also not being disclosed.

The FDA has excluded 40 states as sources of the outbreak. Parts of Florida and the Mexican state of Baja California also were cleared.

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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