Stores, eateries pull tomatoes

Widening outbreak of salmonella is blamed on certain varieties

FDA lists safe sources

June 10, 2008|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun reporter

Supermarkets and restaurants across Maryland are removing tomatoes from their shelves and menus after federal health officials warned of a widening outbreak of salmonella caused by some varieties of the fruit.

Tomatoes have sickened more than 140 people nationwide, and 23 have been hospitalized, since mid-April, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Consumers should avoid raw red plum, red Roma or round red tomatoes, but may continue to eat cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes and tomatoes with vines still attached, the FDA said. McDonald's announced yesterday that it has stopped putting tomato slices on its sandwiches but will still include grape tomatoes in its salads because the FDA considers them safe.

Salmonella is spread by bacteria that seep into the plant from the soil or from tainted water. Infections can cause fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps, with symptoms appearing 12 hours to three days after infection. Symptoms can last four to seven days, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Washing a tomato can prevent salmonella, unless the bacterium has already penetrated the plant skin, usually through a crack or an opening near the stem.

Young children, frail and elderly people and those with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable. "It can be a very serious disease," said Lola Russell, a CDC spokeswoman.

No outbreak-related cases of salmonella have been reported in Maryland, health officials said. "At this stage, we have no evidence to believe any tomatoes in this state are implicated whatsoever," said Alan Brench, chief of food control for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Supermarket chains, including Giant Foods, have pulled raw red plum, red Roma and round tomatoes from their shelves and customers may return tomatoes they have already purchased for refunds, said Jamie Miller, a spokesman for the Landover-based company.

Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes on the vine will remain available, he said.

The FDA published a list last week of states and countries ruled out as possible sources for the outbreak. The areas include California, Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Belgium, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel, the Netherlands and Puerto Rico. Plum, Roma and red round tomatoes from those areas are safe to eat, according to the FDA.

Pinpointing the source of the outbreak could take a week or more, and in the meantime, customers should ask whether the tomatoes being sold in stores and restaurants are from the states and countries deemed safe by the FDA, Brench said.

The FDA initially issued a warning to restaurants in New Mexico and Texas on June 3, but it broadened its advisory Sunday after illnesses were rep1orted in 16 states. Illnesses have been reported in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

The widening scope of the outbreak prompted several outlets to pull tomatoes from their menus, along with the salsas, guacamole, salads and fillings for tortillas made from them.

But many outlets plan to continue selling varieties considered safe by the FDA.

"The safety and well-being of our customers is our number one priority," said Rich Jeffers, a spokesman for Darden Restaurants Inc, the Florida-based chain that owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse and other outlets.

He said the chain pulled tomatoes from its 1,700 restaurants nationwide yesterday. It removed tomatoes last week from outlets in Texas and New Mexico, where the outbreak started.

Denver-based Qdoba Mexican Grills will continue to use tomatoes, but supplies will vary from store to store because the company will use only tomatoes from areas the FDA deems safe, according company officials.

"Currently, in the Baltimore area, we are not selling any tomatoes," said Lisa McBeth, director of operations services.

Other fast-food chains, including Taco Bell Corp. and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., have temporarily stopped offering products with fresh tomatoes.

On its Web site, Chipotle explained its decision and suggested that its customers try other salsas - including a less spicy corn salsa or one made from green or red tomatillos, a different plant from the tomato despite the similar name.

"A 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," the company said.

dennis.obrien@baltsun.com

Salmonella outbreak

Three tomatoes implicated in outbreak::

Red plum tomatoes

Red Roma tomatoes

Round red tomatoes

Four tomatoes considered safe::

Cherry tomatoes

Grape tomatoes

Tomatoes with vines still attached

Home-grown tomatoes

Five ways to avoid salmonella:

* Avoid eating bruised or damaged tomatoes

* Discard any that appear spoiled

* Thoroughly wash the fruit

* Keep tomatoes to be consumed raw separate from raw meats, seafood and other produce

* Wash cutting boards, dishes and countertops with hot water and soap after cutting tomatoes

[Sources: CDC, FDA]

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