Tomatoes with vines still attached are on sale at the Hunger Mountain Cooperative in Montpelier, Vt. Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached and homegrown tomatoes are likely not the source of the outbreak, federal officials said.
updated 2 hours, 9 minutes agoWASHINGTON - The toll from salmonella-tainted tomatoes jumped to 228 illnesses Thursday as the government learned of five dozen previously unknown cases and said it is possible the food poisoning contributed to a cancer patient's death.
Six more states — Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New York, Tennessee and Vermont — reported illnesses related to the outbreak, bringing the number of affected states to 23.
The Food and Drug Administration has not pinpointed the source of the outbreak. With the latest known illness striking on June 1, officials also are not sure if all the tainted tomatoes are off the market.
"As long as we are continuing to see new cases come on board, it is a concern that there are still contaminated tomatoes out there," said the agency's food safety chief, Dr. David Acheson.
Government officials have said all week they were close to cracking the case, but "maybe we were being too optimistic," Acheson acknowledged.
How much longer? "That's impossible to say."
On the do-not-eat list are raw red plum, red Roma or red round tomatoes, unless they were grown in specific states or countries that the FDA has cleared because they were not harvesting when the outbreak began or were not selling their tomatoes in places where people got sick.
The FDA is directing consumers to its Web site — http://www.fda.gov — for updated lists of the safe regions.
Also safe are grape tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached. That is not because there is anything biologically safer about those with a vine but because the sick have assured investigators that is not the kind of tomato they ate.
What if you did not go to the store armed with a list, or the store or restaurant manager cannot assure that any plum, Roma or round tomatoes came from safe regions?
"If you don't know, don't take the risk," Acheson said.
Cooking also kills salmonella, but the FDA is not formally advising people to cook suspect tomatoes for fear they will not get them heated thoroughly.
Mexico and parts of central Florida, two chief tomato suppliers, are still on FDA's suspect list. But the agency would not say they were top suspects, and in fact, said certain parts of Mexico that were not harvesting when the outbreak began are working to be cleared.
At least 25 people have been hospitalized during the outbreak, caused by a relatively rare strain of salmonella known as Saintpaul.
"At this point, there isn't a lot of data to suggest this is a more virulent strain," said Dr. Ian Williams of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
No deaths have been attributed to the salmonella. But the CDC for the first time Thursday acknowledged that the salmonella may have been a contributing factor in the cancer-caused death of a 67-year-old Texas man.
WASHINGTON - Lawmakers voted Thursday to subpoena nine companies responsible for analyzing the most dangerous food entering the country as part of an investigation that gained more urgency with an outbreak of salmonella from tomatoes.
For months, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee has investigated the possible circumvention of government import alerts. Foods posing a potential danger can enter the marketplace only after a laboratory has determined that they are safe, according to Food and Drug Administration rules. But investigators have been told that it is a routine practice for private labs to test food until a clean result is obtained.
"This repeated testing is done without FDA knowledge that potentially dangerous food has been imported into this country and has entered commerce," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and chairman of the House subcommittee that authorized the subpoenas.
Stupak said nine of 10 companies declined to submit information voluntarily out of concern that the food import companies that hire them would then sue them for breaching confidentiality agreements. The records sought related to testing of food found not to meet FDA standards for import into the U.S.
After the 10-0 vote to issue the subpoenas, lawmakers heard from an array of witnesses critical of the FDA's strategy for improving food safety. The hearing took place as the agency deals with an outbreak of salmonella that has sickened 228 people across the country.
FDA has not located contamination sourceLawmakers said they were frustrated that the agency had yet to identify the source of the contamination and stressed that they were alarmed about yet another outbreak. Citing previous safety issues with spinach, seafood and cantaloupes, they made clear that some blame for the pattern lies with the FDA.
"You've had time," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. "We're still waiting."
The FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of about 80 percent of the nation's food supply — virtually all foods except for meat, poultry and eggs. It released a food protection plan in November 2007 that provided a blueprint for preventing and responding to food-borne illnesses.
The Government Accountability Office issued a report Thursday that the agency has provided few details on the resources and strategies required to enact the plan. For example, the agency has estimated that it would take five years to fully implement the plan but no timelines for the various strategies described.
"We continue to have concerns about FDA's lack of specificity on the necessary resources and strategies to fully implement the plan," the GAO concluded.
Stupak noted that the administration has recently called on Congress to add $275 million in funding for the FDA in the next fiscal year. About $125 million would go to food safety efforts.
"I strongly applaud this request, but we need to know far more details about how this money will be spent," Stupak said.
Meanwhile, a study released Thursday by the Harvard School of Public Health found that most Americans remain confident that the food produced in the U.S. is safe. However, many have concerns about imported food produced in some other countries. They also do not have high levels of confidence in parts of the U.S. food safety system and some of the organizations involved.
Only 4 percent described food grown or produced in the U.S. as not at all safe or not too safe. From there, the rates went up to 6 percent for Canada and as high as 47 percent for Mexico and 56 percent for China.
"With growing globalization of the food supply, Americans are likely to worry more about the safety of the food they eat," said Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard.
The nine companies getting subpoenas were ABC Research Corp. of Gainesville, Fla.; Analytical Food Laboratories Inc. of Grand Prairie, Texas; Central Analytical Laboratories Inc. of Metairie, La.; Certified Laboratories Inc. of Plainview, N.Y.; Michelson Laboratories Inc. of Commerce, Calif.; Microbac Laboratories Inc. of Wexford, Pa.; The National Food Laboratory Inc. of Dublin, Calif.; Northland Laboratories of Northbrook, Ill.; and Strasburger and Siegel Inc. of Hanover, Md.
WASHINGTON - Federal health officials haven’t yet traced the source of salmonella-tainted tomatoes but, amid an outcry from farmers, are clearing innocent crops as fast as possible.
“We’re getting very close” to identifying the outbreak’s source, Dr. David Acheson of the Food and Drug Administration told reporters Wednesday.
The outbreak, which has sickened 167 people in 17 states since April, is not over even though it has been two weeks since the last confirmed case of a person falling ill, said Dr. Ian Williams of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s because state and local health departments still are investigating possibly more recent infections.
The FDA has warned consumers against eating certain raw tomatoes: red plum, red Roma or round. Grape and cherry tomatoes or tomatoes still attached to the vine aren’t linked to the illnesses.
Also ruled safe are tomatoes from more than 30 states or countries, including part but not all of major producer Florida, where some counties have been cleared but not others. The FDA can rule out as suspects farms and distributors that weren’t harvesting or selling when the outbreak began. It is directing consumers to its Web site — http://www.fda.gov — for updated lists of safe regions.
State agriculture commissioners from the Southeast, meeting in Kentucky, blasted the FDA for harming the sale of untainted crops.
“The FDA needs to work with the states to pinpoint the source of the outbreak and eradicate it without unnecessarily harming producers whose products are not affected by the outbreak,” Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer said.
The FDA vigorously defended its consumer-protection warnings.
“We have gone overboard to try to inform consumers which tomatoes were not part of this outbreak,” Acheson said.
It takes a long time to even tell an outbreak has begun, much less solve it. People with food poisoning don’t always go to the doctor, or have a stool sample analyzed — and when they do, getting laboratory test results can take two to three weeks. Then health officials must spot a pattern of illness.
Health officials in New Mexico were first to alert the CDC to a brewing problem on May 22. They had a cluster of salmonella cases, including seven of a rare subtype called Salmonella Saintpaul. The next day, New Mexico officials posted to a government database called PulseNet these cases’ genetic fingerprint, allowing the CDC to check whether this same strain of Saintpaul was infecting people elsewhere.
It was, in Texas and other states, with the first illness dating back to April 16, Williams said. CDC then began the painstaking questioning of patients to see what they had in common. On May 30, FDA formally joined the investigation, and the next day established a link with tomatoes. Initial consumer warnings were aimed at a few states, until the FDA went national last weekend.
Salmonella sickens about 1.4 million people a year. But outbreaks aren’t on the rise, although public attention may make it seem so, Acheson said.
“We don’t want to stay quiet and have consumers get sick. The downside of that is consumers say, ’Oh, the system is in crisis,”’ he said. “It’s not getting worse.”