Thursday, June 5, 2008

Stewing Over Salmonella-Contaminated Tomatoes

The FDA, the CDC and several state departments of health are investigating an outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul illnesses that have been linked to certain varieties of raw tomatoes.

According to information provided on the CDC website, 57 people in Texas and New Mexico have been infected with the identical strain of Salmonella Saintpaul. At least 17 of the victims have been hospitalized. Epidemiological evidence is pointing investigators to large tomato varieties, including Roma and red round tomatoes, as the source of the outbreak.

Eight other states have also reported having recovered the outbreak strain of Salmonella Saintpaul from a total of 29 people. CDC does not yet know whether or not these illnesses are also linked to consumption of raw tomatoes.

Until the source of the outbreak can be determined, FDA has warned consumers in New Mexico and Texas to limit themselves to tomato varieties that have not been implicated in the investigation – cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes still attached to the vine – or to home-grown tomatoes.

Including this latest incident, contaminated tomatoes have accounted for a baker's dozen (13) Salmonella outbreaks in the past ten years. While researchers haven't yet established how a tomato crop becomes contaminated, a recent study revealed that Salmonella can survive in soil for at least six weeks – enough time for debris from a contaminated crop to infect a subsequent crop.

Even hydroponic tomatoes are not immune to Salmonella contamination. The pathogen can be tracked in on workers' soiled boots, or by small field animals that find their way into the greenhouses.

Investigators into the cause of the current outbreak are still facing a long list of unanswered questions. Until the source of the Salmonella Saintpaul has been found – and has been taken off the market – consumers throughout the United States should follow the advice given to the citizens of Texas and New Mexico. Stick to cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, and "tomatoes on the vine". Or grow your own.

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