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FDA Says It's Safe to Eat Tomatoes

Salmonella outbreak may be winding down; peppers remain suspect

THURSDAY, July 17, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. health officials on Thursday dropped their warning against eating fresh tomatoes, as the toll in the ongoing salmonella outbreak reached 1,220 confirmed cases, with at least 242 people hospitalized.

"As of today, FDA officials believe that consumers may now enjoy all types of fresh tomatoes available on the domestic market without concern about becoming infected with Salmonella saintpaul bacteria," Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said during a Thursday afternoon teleconference.

But the warning against jalapeno and serrano peppers remains in effect for the largest foodborne outbreak in the United States in more than a decade, he said.

"We still do not know where the original contamination was," Acheson acknowledged during the teleconference.

Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the outbreak may be winding down.

"The large salmonella outbreak is continuing with 20 to 30 new cases being reported each day," Tauxe said. "Although it appears that the outbreak is ongoing, and we do not have evidence that it's over, it does appear to have decreased in intensity beginning in mid-June."

When the outbreak began in April, early signs pointed to raw tomatoes -- particularly raw round, red tomatoes, plum or Roma tomatoes -- as the likely source of contamination. But Acheson said the ban was lifted Thursday, because it's highly unlikely that any tomatoes that were on the market at the start of the outbreak remain on the market. The FDA has found no samples of salmonella in tomatoes on any of the farms or in any of the packing houses investigated, he said.

As later cases of salmonella infection came in, more evidence seemed to point to peppers. As a result, the FDA, in cooperation with Mexican officials, has dispatched inspectors to a specific packer in Mexico that receives peppers from several farms, Acheson said.

According to the CDC, people stricken during the outbreak have ranged in age from under 1 to 99 years old, and 50 percent are female. The rate of illness has been highest among those 20 to 29 years old; it is lowest among adolescents 10 to 19 years old and people over 80.

According to the CDC's latest count as of July 16, the breakdown by state of ill people shows: Alabama (2 persons), Arkansas (16), Arizona (54), California (9), Colorado (16), Connecticut (4), Florida (2), Georgia (28), Idaho (6), Illinois (113), Indiana (16), Iowa (2), Kansas (18), Kentucky (1), Louisiana (1), Maine (1), Maryland (32), Massachusetts (26), Michigan (24), Minnesota (22), Mississippi (2), Missouri (17), New Hampshire (5), Nevada (11), New Jersey (12), New Mexico (102), New York (32), North Carolina (23), Ohio (10), Oklahoma (25), Oregon (10), Pennsylvania (12), Rhode Island (3), South Carolina (2), Tennessee (9), Texas (456), Utah (2), Virginia (31), Vermont (2), Washington (17), West Virginia (1), Wisconsin (13), and the District of Columbia (1). Five ill persons are from Canada; four appear to have been infected while traveling in the United States, and one individual remains under investigation.

CDC officials say that people at risk of infection, including infants and elderly people, should avoid eating jalapeno and serrano peppers. Raw jalapeno peppers are often used in the preparation of salsa, pico de gallo, and other dishes.

Salmonella is a bacteria that can cause bloody diarrhea in humans. Some 40,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported in the United States each year, although the CDC estimates that because milder cases aren't diagnosed or reported, the actual number of infections may be 30 or more times greater. Approximately 600 people die each year after being infected.

However, the strain of Salmonella saintpaul had been previously considered rare. In 2007, according to the CDC, there were only three people infected in the country during April through June.

Meanwhile, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll has found that the salmonella outbreak has unnerved many consumers, with nearly half of Americans saying they're worried they could get sick from eating contaminated food. And they're avoiding foods they'd normally buy.

Three-quarters of those polled said they remain confident about the overall safety of foods. But the poll also found that 86 percent of consumers back the idea of a "tracing" system for produce. This would allow for the labeling of produce so it could be tracked from the farm, through packers and shippers, to supermarkets. The lack of such a system has hampered federal officials in their efforts to determine the cause of the salmonella outbreak.

Meat and poultry have long been subject to enforceable federal safeguards, but fruits and vegetables are not, although produce increasingly is being implicated in outbreaks, the AP said.

More information

Visit the FDA for more on the salmonella outbreak.

SOURCES: July 17, 2008, teleconference with David Acheson, M.D., associate commissioner for foods, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Robert Tauxe, M.D., M.P.H., deputy director, Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Associated Press
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