Tomatoes pulled off shelves amid salmonella scare

CHICAGO Several large fast food and grocery chains have voluntarily pulled tomatoes from their menus and shelves.

From mid-April to the end of May, 167 people in 17 states have been infected with a rare strain of salmonella saintpaul which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked to several kinds of raw tomatoes. The retail community and food service community knows where their tomatoes are coming from.

Strube Celery and Vegetable Company has been in business since 1913 and they are not taking any chances with bad tomatoes. President and COO David Watson says they removed all red plum, Roma or round tomatoes, especially those coming from Mexico and Florida.

"Consumers need to know that they can eat cherry tomatoes or tomatoes that have a vine attached to them, or grape tomatoes that come on the shelves at supermarkets, from any source all safe to eat," said David Watson, Strube.

The Food and Drug Administration says that cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes that grow on a vine are perfectly safe to eat.

Watson says the tomato industry is a multi-million-dollar business and that suppliers, grocers and restaurants have been economically impacted by the salmonella outbreak. At the moment, they are storing the tomatoes consumers need to avoid and are waiting to see if they must destroy them.

"We have growers all over the world stuck with the tomatoes in the ground. They can't sell the product they have already picked. It's millions and millions and millions of dollars," said Watson.

Grocery stores throughout the country have stopped selling the tomatoes in question and a number of fast food chains have eliminated the tomatoes from menus.

Pompei Bakery on Taylor Street is one of the restaurants throughout Chicagoland affected. Owner Ralph Davino says he has destroyed all of his round red and Roma tomatoes and replaced them with the vine and cherry tomatoes.

"When we read of the problem, we went and got cherry tomatoes and vine ripes for our customers," said Davino.

The FDA says they are investigating the source of the outbreak and hope to have answers quickly. 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.

McDonald's, Wal-Mart, Burger King, Kroger, Outback Steakhouse, Winn-Dixie and Taco Bell were among the companies that voluntarily withdrew red plum, red Roma or round red tomatoes unless they were grown in certain states and countries.

In addition, officials at the Los Angeles Unified School District -- the nation's second largest -- said Monday they have "indefinitely suspended" serving uncooked tomatoes.

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.

Also not associated with the outbreak are raw red 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.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said at least 23 people of the 167 sickened have been hospitalized.

A 67-year-old cancer patient in Texas, who health officials said was sickened by salmonella at a Mexican restaurant, is believed to be the first death associated with the outbreak.

The death of Raul Rivera last week has been officially attributed to his cancer, but Houston health department spokeswoman Kathy Barton told the Houston Chronicle in Tuesday's editions that the salmonella strain was a contributing factor.

Rivera's wife said he was hospitalized after eating pico de gallo, a tomato-based condiment, in late May while celebrating good news about his cancer treatment.

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.

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.

McDonald's, the world's largest hamburger chain, stopped serving sliced tomatoes on its sandwiches as a precaution, but will continue serving grape tomatoes in its salads because no problems have been linked to that variety.

The decision didn't upset Connie Semaitis, a 49-year-old travel agent in downtown Chicago, who bought a cheeseburger and a drink at a McDonald's during lunch hour Monday.

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

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.

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: Yum Brands Inc., which owns Taco Bell, KFC, Long John Silver's and A&W All-American Food Restaurants; Darden Restaurants, which owns and operates six brands including Red Lobster and Olive Garden; Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.; and 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 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 pulled the three types of tomatoes from all its stores in 31 states on Sunday per the FDA advisory. The company had early last week pulled the tomatoes from stores in Texas and New Mexico.

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

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.

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


On the Net:

  • FDA warning:
  • CDC:
  • The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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