Closing in on illness' cause

Contaminated tomatoes came from Fla., Mexico

June 21, 2008|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON - Contaminated tomatoes came from farms in Florida and Mexico, federal health officials said yesterday, as investigators moved closer to identifying the cause of an outbreak that has sickened at least 552 people, including 18 in Maryland.

The new, higher toll was announced as Food and Drug Administration investigators tried to determine whether the contamination came from farms or, more likely, somewhere else along the supply chain. Inspectors will be fanning out to the farms, packing sheds, warehouses and distribution centers this weekend, officials said.

"This is not just the farms we're inspecting. It's the whole distribution chain," said Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for foods. He said it was unlikely that contamination took place in both Florida and Mexico, since the bacteria strain is rare.

The Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, believed to be the country's largest ever, has been traced back to April 10. The most recent cases of infection took place June 10, officials said.

Consumers have been advised that it is safe to eat tomatoes from most states, including Maryland, and that grape and cherry tomatoes, or tomatoes with vines attached, are safe.

The official count of those sickened by the contamination jumped to 552 in 32 states, up from 383 in 30 states, and Washington, D.C. Also rising was the number hospitalized, to 53. Investigators haven't blamed any deaths on the contamination, though it may have contributed to the death of a cancer patient in Texas.

In Maryland, the number of sick increased from the 10 reported earlier this week. None of the Marylanders died, said a state Health Department spokesman.

Dr. Ian Williams, chief of the OutbreakNet team at the Centers for Disease Control, said the outbreak could still be going on, but he attributed the growing numbers of confirmed cases to better surveillance by states and laboratories catching up on backlogged samples.

Salmonella can cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps from 12 to 72 hours after eating the tainted food. The illness typically lasts four days to a week, and most victims recover without treatment, though the infection sometimes enters the bloodstream and requires hospitalization.

Farms in southern and central Florida and in Mexico have long been thought to be the source of the tainted tomatoes, since that was where tomatoes were being harvested at the time of the outbreak. Farms elsewhere, by contrast, began supplying tomatoes more recently.

It took investigators weeks to confirm the sources of the tomatoes because of difficulties in overcoming patients' fuzzy memories and in reviewing distribution records, according to FDA officials, who had said earlier that they might never pinpoint the cause.

Investigators received a break when nine people from Chicago reportedly became ill after eating tomatoes at two Adobo Grill restaurants on the city's North Side. A similar cluster of patients, in Texas, is also being investigated, Acheson said.

A spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Health Services said state law prevented the release of any information about the cluster of victims.

jonathan.rockoff@ baltsun.com

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