Fast food chains hold the tomatoes

McDonald's, others pull tomatoes over salmonella
CHICAGO The outbreak has spread to 16 states, including Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. The source of the contaminated tomatoes is still a mystery.

The Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning about the tainted tomatoes. Health officials are linking the salmonella outbreak to numerous illnesses around the country. And they say the numbers are probably much larger than has been reported. That's making it difficult to find some varieties of tomatoes right now.

Diners were still able to order their favorite salads with large beefsteak tomatoes at Gene and Georgetti Steakhouse Monday night. But it is one of the few places.

"I called my vendor to make sure we were in the clear, and he assured me the tomatoes do not contain salmonella," said Rich Ciota, Gene and Georgetti.

The FDA knows where some of the safe tomatoes are grown. But it has yet to determine exactly where the salmonella-tainted tomatoes are coming from. So far since mid-April, it has documented 145 cases of people becoming infected. Twenty-three had to be hospitalized. Illinois has had more than two dozen cases so far.

"The fact this is a multi-state outbreak suggests widespread distribution of this product," said Dr. Mark Dworkin, UIC Public Health School.

The threat has caused several restaurant chains, including McDonalds and Taco Bell to stop serving most tomatoes. A spokesperson for Jewel Osco also issued a statement saying in response to the FDA advisory issued June 7, "We have voluntarily removed from sale all raw red plum, Roma or round red tomatoes covered under the advisory until further notice."

"This could affect the whole country. We're talking about tomatoes grown by large commercial firms that get shipped everywhere," said J.D. Hanson, Center on Food Safety.

According to the FDA, some tomatoes are still safe, including cherry, grape and larger tomatoes with the vine still attached.

Symptoms of salmonella include abdominal cramping, fever and diarrhea. But it can be more serious. The very young and old are more susceptible to more severe illness.

In rare cases, salmonella can even be fatal. If you question the safety of tomatoes you may have, health experts say you should probably just avoid them.

Burger King and Outback Steakhouse were among other restaurants voluntarily withdrawing tomatoes from their menus.

McDonald's Corp., the world's largest hamburger chain, stopped serving sliced tomatoes on its sandwiches as a precaution until the source of the bacterial infection is known, according to a statement Monday from spokeswoman Danya Proud. The Oak Brook, Ill.-based company will continue serving grape tomatoes in its salads because no problems have been linked to that variety, she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said at least 23 people have been hospitalized, and no deaths have been reported.

In downtown Chicago, travel agent Connie Semaitis, 49, bought a cheeseburger and a drink at a McDonald's restaurant during lunch hour Monday. She said she was happy the chain was being cautious.

"I'd rather be safe than sorry," Semaitis said.

Also not associated with the outbreak are raw Roma, red plum and round red tomatoes from Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Belgium, Canada, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel, Netherlands and Puerto Rico.

Salmonella is a bacteria that lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals. The bacteria are usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal feces.

Most infected people suffer fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps starting 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness tends to last four to seven days.

The Food and Drug Administration warned consumers in New Mexico and Texas as early as June 3 about the outbreak. The agency expanded its warning during the weekend and chains began voluntarily removing many red plum, red Roma or round red tomatoes from their shelves in response.

The FDA is investigating the source of the outbreak, agency spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said.

"We are working hard and fast on this one and hope to have something as quickly as possible," Rawlings said Monday.

Rawlings said the FDA's "traceback" investigations typically look at similarities in illnesses reported to the CDC by state health officials. Investigators work backward to find the source of the contaminated product.

FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach toured the agency's southwest regional research lab in Irvine, Calif., on Monday, where microbiologists worked to trace the source of the outbreak.

The salmonella causing the outbreak is a very unusual type called salmonella saintpaul, said von Eschenbach, who added it was not more virulent than other types of salmonella.

Tampa-based OSI Restaurant Partners LLC, which owns and operates eight brands including Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's and Bonefish Grill, said it stopped serving all raw tomatoes other than grape tomatoes on Saturday evening. The company also instructed restaurants to discard salsa and other prepared foods containing raw tomatoes.

Miami-based Burger King Corp. said it had withdrawn raw round red tomatoes from most of its U.S. restaurants, as well as locations in Canada and Puerto Rico and some other Caribbean islands. Some California restaurants continued using the tomatoes because they buy from growers in states the FDA has said are not involved in the outbreak, Burger King said.

Other restaurant operators that stopped serving most tomatoes: Louisville, Ky.-based Yum Brands Inc., which owns Taco Bell, KFC, Long John Silver's and A&W All-American Food Restaurants; Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, which owns and operates six brands including Red Lobster and Olive Garden; Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.; and San Diego-based Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp., which operates Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes restaurants in 15 states.

Among retailers, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. -- the largest grocery seller in the U.S. -- is working with federal officials to ensure affected tomatoes are pulled from Wal-Marts, Neighborhood Markets and Sam's Club warehouse stores nationwide, spokeswoman Deisha Galberth said.

Galberth said the Bentonville, Ark.-based company is modifying orders to its stores and putting an electronic block at its registers as an added safety measure to keep the recalled tomatoes from being purchased.

Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., the nation's largest traditional grocery chain, said it Sunday pulled raw Roma tomatoes, plum tomatoes and red round tomatoes from all its stores in 31 states per the FDA advisory. The company had early last week pulled the tomatoes from stores in Texas and New Mexico.

Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie Stores Inc., which operates 521 stores in five southern states, also stopped selling tomatoes involved in the FDA warning, as did Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets Inc. Publix offered refunds to customers who bought the tomatoes before they were removed from shelves or destroyed over the weekend.

Monrovia, Calif.-based Trader Joe's, with more than 280 grocery stores in 23 states, also stopped selling the tomatoes in question and offered refunds, according to a statement from spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki.

O'Hara Township, Penn.-based Giant Eagle, which has 223 supermarkets in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland, said it also removed the tomatoes from store shelves during the weekend; as did Minneapolis-based SuperValu Inc., which operates Jewel, Shaw's, Cub Foods, Acme and some Albertson's stores.

California Tomato Farmers President Ed Beckman said that at this time of year almost all tomatoes sold in the United States come from either Mexico or Florida.

Mexico supplies about one-third of all tomatoes consumed in the U.S. in the winter months and Florida is the No. 1 producer, with $600 million in sales annually. California is the second-largest producer, with $400 million in sales annually.

Most of the salmonella cases have been clustered in New Mexico and Texas, Beckman said.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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