Industry News | June 10, 2008

Tomatoes Pulled From Fast-Food Menus

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a nationwide alert warning consumers about the risk of contacting Salmonella from certain varieties of tomatoes on June 9. Epidemiologist Casey Barton Behravesh told CBS News in a June 4th story that “the specific type and source of tomatoes is under investigation.” While the investigation is played out, officials are warning food operators and consumers to avoid raw red plum, red Roma, and round red tomatoes. Dishes containing raw tomatoes, such as salsa, guacamole, and pico de gallo might also be contaminated.
    The outbreak likely originated in New Mexico and Texas, with reports of Salmonella poisoning caused by the serotype Saintpaul surfacing in mid-April. New Mexico and Texas have reported the most cases, with 39 and 56 illnesses documented, respectively. Other states reporting incidences of the Saintpaul strain include: Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma. The wide range of infections leads authorities to believe that the contaminated tomatoes were shipped throughout much of the U.S.  
    Cherry, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached, and homegrown tomatoes are not likely to be contaminated with Salmonella and are fine to eat, according to officials. Red plum, red Roma, and round red tomatoes grown in areas not implicated in the outbreak are also presumed safe to consume. A complete list of non-affected regions can be found at http://www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/tomatoes.html. 
    Salmonella, which lives in humans’ intestinal tracts, causes fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. The illness usually lasts four to seven days. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been 167 reported cases in 17 states. Twenty-three infected people have been hospitalized, and Fox News reports that Salmonella was a contributing factor in the death of a cancer patient in Texas. The FDA, according to CNN, is using “traceback” investigations to isolate the origin of the contaminated product. Investigators are studying the similarities in the reported illnesses and working backward to identify the source.
    Restaurants are rushing to pull potentially affected tomatoes from their locations in order to protect customers. Major chains taking the red plum, red Roma, and round red tomatoes off their menu include McDonald’s; Burger King Corp.; Yum Brands Inc.; Red Lobster and Olive Garden; Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.; Souplantation; Sweet Tomatoes; Jack-In-The-Box; and Daphne's Greek Cafe. Operators are still serving other varieties of tomatoes, such as grape tomatoes.  
    Steps to help avoid contracting Salmonella from tomatoes include washing the tomatoes and cooking them at 145 degrees for at least 15 seconds.

—Mary Fletcher King