Health Officials Track Salmonella, Suspect Tomatoes

Health officials are trying to identify the source of the salmonella contamination that has made more than 100 people ill. Tomatoes are thought to be the culprit. The Food and Drug Administration is urging consumers to avoid certain types of tomatoes.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Health officials are trying to trace the source of that salmonella contamination we've been reporting on. At least 145 people who've eaten tomatoes have fallen ill. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on why the Food and Drug Administration is urging consumers to avoid Roma Plum and red round tomatoes.

ALLISON AUBREY: If you're thinking that almost all tomatoes are red and round, you may be wondering if there's a safe bet at the moment. So far, what investigators know is that cherry, grape and tomatoes sold with the vines still attached have not been implicated by people who've gotten sick. And to the question can tomatoes simply be cleaned off to get rid of the salmonella bacteria, food safety expert Tom Chestnut of NSF International says not reliably.

Mr. TOM CHESTNUT (Food Safety Expert, NSF International): Washing of fruits and vegetables are very good means to get reduction of the bacteria that's on the outside, but it's very difficult to get a total elimination.

AUBREY: One reason is that the bacteria cling to the skin. Another is that it can get into the tomato through tiny pores in the skin. Chestnut says in packing houses, tomatoes are often submersed in chlorinated water. He explains if the rinse is too cold or the tomato's too hot, the pores can open up, and temperature can be a problem.

Mr. CHESTNUT: Because if you get too wide of a fluctuation in that, you can introduce contamination into the tomato itself.

AUBREY: Until officials figure out where the salmonella came from, consumers should eat only the cherry and grape varieties or tomatoes still on the vine. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Tomatoes Off Menus Amid Salmonella Outbreak

What to Avoid

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.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.