Tomatoes are still giving investigators at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) problems. As of July 3, the CDC had reported 943 tomato-related salmonella cases with 130 of those needing to be hospitalized.
The FDA and the CDC held a media briefing on July 1 to explain recent developments in the salmonella outbreak.
“The FDA has expanded its investigation into the cause of the salmonella St. Paul outbreak, which has so far focused solely on fresh tomatoes,” said David Acheson, associate commissioner for Foods at the FDA. “The expansion is going to include additional produce items that are commonly served in combination with tomatoes.”
Dr. Robert Tauxe with the CDC said their original recommendations would not change, however.
“While the CDC is broadening the scope of its case control study there is no change in the FDA and CDC recommendations related to tomatoes,” Tauxe said.
Neither Tauxe nor Acheson would specify which produce items would now be included in the study.
Local restaurants have responded in various ways.
“We’ve never stopped serving tomatoes,” said Debbie Garner of Debbie’s Restaruant, and she had not heard of any other produce being recalled.
Wendy Clay, the assistant manager at Subway, said they are doing their best to comply with FDA recommendations.
“When all this first happened, we did pull our tomatoes,” Clay said. “We haven’t heard anything about any other recalls.”
Clay said Subway is once again offering tomatoes that have been cleared by the FDA to customers.
The southwestern states have taken the brunt of the illnesses.
“Texas, New Mexico and Arizona account for over half the cases in the outbreak and that continues to be the case in the more recently reported cases,” said Tauxe.
The FDA and the CDC assured consumers that they would continue to look into the source of the salmonella.
“The investigation will continue to focus on the entire production chain from farm to consumer,” Acheson said.
The investigators will look at where the produce is being grown and if there is a contaminated water source. They will also look into the possibility that the produce is being contaminated at the packaging and distribution sights.
“We’re also working with the industry to examine records for distribution of not just the tomatoes but some of these products that are commonly consumed with fresh tomatoes, again looking back to the onset of the outbreak,” Acheson said. “Ultimately, it is the industry’s legal and ethical responsibility to ensure that the food they provide to consumers is safe.”
Both Acheson and Tauxe said they understood that many consumers might be frustrated with the pace of the investigation.
“We often have to rely on people’s memory about things that are not very memorable, such as what they ate last week,” Tauxe said. “People may remember many things, but they may not remember everything they ate and they may not realize or remember that many of the things that they ate have many different ingredients.”
“The pace of this investigation has been frustratingly slow and FDA investigators have been working hard to try to move this along as fast as possible,” Acheson said.
Tauxe was asked if it was possible that tomatoes had nothing to do with the salmonella outbreak.
“Let me emphasize that we did observe a very strong association and we continue to observe that the cases are very often tomato eaters,” Tauxe said. “It was over 80 percent of the cases in the initial case control study that had consumed fresh raw tomatoes and it continues to be a very high proportion.”
Acheson said grape, cherry and vine-ripened tomatoes still have not been linked to the outbreak and are considered safe to eat. Large red tomatoes, Roma and plum tomatoes are still being investigated.