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Salmonella outbreak causes restaurants, grocery stores to pull tomatoes

June 13, 2008|By JOSH SHAW

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Those who enjoy their salads and sandwiches with sweet slices of summertime tomato might be disappointed in the wake of last week's U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory warning linking the fruit to salmonella.

The red plum, red roma and round red varieties of tomatoes have been pulled from many local restaurants and grocery stores as a precaution, and fast-food chains like McDonald's, Quiznos, Taco Bell and Chipotle Mexican Grill across the country have stopped serving tomatoes and tomato products.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday was still searching for the source of the outbreak that has sickened at least 228 people in 23 U.S. states since mid-April, the Associated Press reported. And with the latest known illness striking June 1, officials also aren't sure if all the tainted tomatoes are off the market.

No tomato-related cases of the bacteria have been reported in Maryland, according to the FDA.

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"There are several restaurants that have erred on the side of caution and pulled all tomatoes," Ryan Seavolt of the Washington County Health Department said. "No problems have been reported so far."

Eva Peacher, manager of Quiznos in South Pointe Shopping Center on Oak Ridge Drive near Funkstown, said most customers have been understanding about the absence of tomatoes.

"Most people have heard about it by now and they understand it's a problem all over the country," Peacher said. "It hasn't bothered that many customers."

Chain restaurants aren't the only businesses feeling the effects of the outbreak.

Carla's Deli in downtown Hagerstown stopped serving tomatoes this week and lost $36 worth of tomatoes when its supplier called and said they might be contaminated.

"We ordered a case of tomatoes on Friday" that the deli decided not to use, manager Carla Tadler said. "(The customers) understand, but they still complain. It's just not a sub without tomato, but we don't want to serve anything that will make people sick."

It is safe to eat cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached, according to the FDA.

Local grocery stores have taken precautions, too.

Martin's Food Markets and Food Lion stores pulled all three types of tomatoes that have been linked to illnesses, but continue to sell all other types of tomatoes that come from areas the FDA has said is not involved in the contamination.

"Food Lion is very committed to food safety, so we took immediate action and removed the products from our shelves when we got the advisory," said Karen Peterson, corporate communications manager for Food Lion.

Food Lion received a new shipment of the recalled varieties of tomatoes that come from areas not affected by the recall and should have them in stores either today or tomorrow, according to Peterson.

The FDA compiled a list of acceptable and unacceptable sources of tomatoes, and Washington County Health Department personnel contacted local restaurants to make sure they were aware of the FDA advisory, Seavolt said.

Although no data was available Thursday on whether tomato prices have risen in response to the outbreak, Ephraim Leibtag, an economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said short-term prices historically rise during food recalls.

"The bottom line is supply is decreased so places will not have as many tomatoes as they usually do," he said. "In these situations, there is usually a temporary price increase for consumers based on supplies."

Consumers will be less likely to purchase tomatoes for a short period of time, but Ephraim said he expects consumer behavior to return to normal within a few months.

Restaurants also might have to deal with paying higher prices in the short term, according to Ephraim.

In the meantime, local food and farmers markets serve as an alternative for those who crave tomatoes on their sandwiches. Those grown in Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania are not associated with the outbreak, according to the FDA.

Michael James, owner of Blueberry Hill in Clear Spring, sells produce at farmers' markets and said none of his products come in contact with anything that contains the salmonella bacteria.

"It's a great time to get tomatoes locally," he said. "People are really interested in organic fruit, and we are careful in handling our products."

James said he does not apply manure within 120 days of harvest and never touches anything that carries the salmonella bacteria when farming.

Salmonella are usually transmitted to humans who eat foods contaminated with animal feces. Animal products such as raw meats, eggs and milk are the most common sources, but any food can become contaminated, including fruit, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

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