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Sheetz removes Roma tomatoes

July 17, 2004|by JULIE E. GREENE and TARA REILLY

julieg@herald-mail.com
tarar@herald-mail.com

TRI-STATE - Sheetz no longer will use Roma tomatoes in its products, after public health officials said the commonality among a growing number of salmonellosis cases was that people had eaten at Sheetz, the chairman of Sheetz said Friday.

There were at least 57 confirmed cases of salmonellosis as of Friday morning that might be linked to deli food purchased at Sheetz stores in Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, U.S. Food and Drug Administration spokesman Mike Herndon said.

He said the FDA expected the number of cases to rise.

Tri-State area health departments reported at least 18 cases of salmonellosis in Washington County, Franklin and Fulton counties in Pennsylvania and Berkeley and Morgan counties in West Virginia that might be linked to Sheetz food.

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Salmonellosis typically causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, health officials said. Symptoms usually are noticeable within 12 to 72 hours after eating contaminated food.

Earlier this week, Sheetz employees threw out tomatoes and lettuce in the chain's 300 stores and sanitized counters, Chairman Steve Sheetz said in a telephone interview on Friday.

Richard McGarvey, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, praised Sheetz officials' cooperation and actions as the number of salmonellosis cases grew and appeared to be connected to the convenience store chain's deli.

"They stepped right up to the plate when we first went to them with our suspicions," McGarvey said.

Sheetz and health department officials went over Sheetz workers' food-handling procedures and hygiene practices to determine if the outbreak was from the food or the handling, McGarvey said.

By Wednesday, health department officials determined the cases were connected to Sheetz's deli and appeared to be caused by food coming into the stores, not food handling, McGarvey said.

That's the day the health department announced the outbreak, he said.

Sheetz said he did not know which of the chain's 300 stores were patronized by the people who were diagnosed with salmonellosis.

The first he heard about a salmonellosis problem was July 9, when the company's director of safety got a call about several people in Westmoreland County, Pa., who had gotten sick, Sheetz said.

At that point, the only commonality among those people was eating Sheetz food, he said.

Sheetz said he was notified last Monday that the Pennsylvania Department of Health had a number of confirmed cases with Sheetz being the only common factor. The possible contaminants had been narrowed to lettuce and tomatoes.

That Monday, all the Sheetz stores got rid of their lettuce and tomatoes, replacing them with new produce, he said.

Once Sheetz officials learned from the Pennsylvania health department what the particular strain of salmonellosis was, they conducted their own investigation, Sheetz said.

The salmonella javiana strain is related to produce, typically tomatoes, Sheetz and McGarvey said.

Sheetz officials found Roma tomatoes often were a commonality in past U.S. cases of salmonella javiana, Sheetz said.

After Sheetz officials determined Roma tomatoes often were the root of such cases, all Roma tomatoes were thrown out Wednesday, Sheetz said.

"We sanitized everything. Threw out everything on the table on Wednesday. Did a total sanitization and started with new product," Sheetz said.

Instead of using Romas, the chain will use hothouse tomatoes, Sheetz said.

Washington County Health Department spokesman Rod MacRae said Friday the department had 12 confirmed salmonellosis cases in Washington County, up from 10 cases Thursday.

MacRae said the health department won't know if Washington County's 12 cases are associated with Sheetz food until results come back next week.

He said, however, the county normally doesn't have that many cases of salmonellosis at the same time.

"To get 12 ... within a couple of days, that's unusual," MacRae said.

He said all 12 cases were reported to the Health Department this week.

Kimberly Kline, regional epidemiologist for the West Virginia Department of Health, said three cases of salmonellosis in Morgan County likely came from Sheetz food because the people who came down with the illness all had eaten there.

"We believe that they are linked to Sheetz," Kline said. "They had eaten meals there."

Kline said there are two or three other possible cases of salmonellosis in Morgan County that may be associated with Sheetz deli food.

There may be one case of salmonellosis in Berkeley County linked to Sheetz and two others were being investigated, but confirmation has not yet been made on those cases, Kline said.

As of Friday, no cases were reported in Jefferson County, Kline said.

There were reports of at least one case each in Franklin and Fulton counties, McGarvey said.

McGarvey said the department was not reporting exactly how many cases were reported in each county.

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