No End in Site for Tomato Salmonella Outbreak

The number of <"">Salmonella infections linked to tainted raw tomatoes continues to grow as investigators attempt to confirm its source across Texas and New Mexico.  This new Salmonella outbreak—Salmonella St. Paul—is linked to fresh tomatoes, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.  Also confirmed by the department, in New Mexico, 40 cases of the same St. Paul Salmonella strain have occurred.  An additional three cases were reported in Harris County, bringing the total to 24 cases in Texas, state health officials said, which includes four cases in Dallas County.  According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), preliminary investigations suggest raw red plum, red Roma, or round red tomatoes are to blame.  Officials are also trying to determine if illnesses in 10 other states might be linked to the tomato Salmonella outbreak.

The first New Mexico illnesses were reported as early as May 6 and were linked to tomatoes purchased at Wal-Mart, Basha’s Supermarkets, and Lowe’s Markets.  Deborah Busemeyer, the health department’s communications director, said:  “We bought a ton of tomatoes, and we’re in the process of testing them.  We’re testing all different kinds.  We tried to take a wide sample,” she explained.  New Mexico officials began this testing on a variety of tomatoes statewide in an attempt to determine the source.  The New Mexico Environment Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the FDA are working on a traceback investigation.  A spokeswoman for the CDC said it planned to post information about the outbreak on its Website.  Emily Palmer of the Texas Department of State Health Services said officials are monitoring the outbreak and may consider testing as the investigation continues.  

The FDA suggests only eating tomatoes not connected to the outbreak, such as cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine attached, and tomatoes grown at home.  Always ensure the tomato’s skin is not broken and wash tomatoes before eating them.  Meanwhile, some Dallas businesses have removed tomatoes as a precaution.

In an earlier Salmonella outbreak, state and county officials linked tomatoes that sickened 19 customers and three employees in October 2007 at a Minnesota Quizno’s.  In 2006, tomatoes were linked to an outbreak of Salmonella Newport affecting 109 people in 19 states.  Last year, Florida growers persuaded state legislators to institute a mandatory safety program to help prevent such outbreaks.

Salmonella can occur when food is improperly stored or handled and when preparers do not wash their hands or sanitize implements involved in meat storage.  Salmonella is a common organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems.  Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain and cramping within 12 to 72 hours of infection.  Generally, the illness lasts a week.  In some, hospitalization is required because the infection may have spread from the intestines to the blood stream and other body sites.  Without treatment, severe cases of Salmonella can result in death; however, some Salmonella bacteria are resistant to antibiotics, largely due to the use of antibiotics to promote the growth of feed animals.

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