Preliminary data suggest that raw, red tomatoes are the cause of a salmonella outbreak that has infected at least 145 people nationwide since mid-April, according to the Food and Drug Administration. At least 23 people have been hospitalized.
Salmonella is a bacteria that lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals. The bacteria usually are transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal feces.
Most infected people suffer fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps starting 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness tends to last four to seven days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that for every reported case, 30 more cases go unreported.
For now, the FDA advises the following:
— Cherry, grape and homegrown tomatoes, and tomatoes sold with vines still attached are considered safe.
— Avoid raw Roma, plum and red round tomatoes.
— Avoid fresh salsa, guacamole and pico de gallo, which often contain raw tomatoes.
— Safety experts say it's not possible to reliably wash off salmonella. But cooking tomatoes will destroy the bacteria.
Compiled from NPR reports and The Associated Press
McDonald's "Big N' Tasty" sandwich is a little smaller Tuesday, and the Chicken Ranch BLT has temporarily lost its "T." Tomatoes are under scrutiny as the possible culprit in a salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 145 people in more than a dozen states.
Federal health officials are trying to pinpoint the source of the contamination, and in the meantime, several restaurant chains, including McDonald's and Chipotle Mexican Grill, have stopped using fresh tomatoes altogether as a precaution. Wal-Mart, Winn-Dixie and other supermarkets have also pulled some types of tomatoes from their produce aisles.
The Food and Drug Administration is urging consumers to avoid raw Roma, plum and red round tomatoes. So far, investigators know that cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes sold with the vines still attached have not been implicated by people who have gotten sick.
The salmonella outbreak has cast a dark cloud over tomato fields in Florida, where half the nation's fresh tomatoes are grown. Michael Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, says if the investigation drags on, farmers could be left with unsold tomatoes rotting on the vine.
"They're extremely frustrated in that business has basically ground to a halt at this point in time," he says. "We're anxiously awaiting a determination by the Food and Drug Administration as to what the specific source of this problem is. And until that happens, quite frankly, we're dead in the water."
That's bad news for the 33,000 workers who help to harvest the Florida crop. The FDA has cleared tomatoes from California and seven other states, but only because those tomatoes hadn't ripened yet when the outbreak began in mid-April. Since then, at least 23 salmonella victims have been hospitalized.
Until officials figure out where the salmonella came from, consumers are advised to eat only the cherry and grape varieties or tomatoes still on the vine.
Simply cleaning tomatoes is not a reliable way to get rid of the salmonella bacteria, says food safety expert Tom Chestnut of NSF International.
Washing fruits and vegetables is a good way to reduce bacteria on the outside, "but it's very difficult to get a total elimination," he says.
Reporting by Scott Horsley and Allison Aubrey.