Tomatoes to blame

-A A +A
By Gabriel Vasquez

The Food and Drug Administration has alerted consumers in New Mexico that a food poisoning outbreak has been linked to certain types of uncooked red tomatoes and products containing raw red tomatoes.

According to the Center for Disease Control, reports of salmonella as a result of consuming these products have now come from nine other states – Texas, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, Illinois and Indiana.

Lab tests have confirmed at least 40 cases of the disease in New Mexico, which is of the “Saintpaul” strain. Preliminary data from the New Mexico Department of Health suggest that large Roma, large round red, and red plum tomatoes are the source of contamination.

The CDC speculates that illnesses began between April 23 and May 27, with patients ranging in age from 3-82 years old. At least 17 people have been hospitalized. No deaths have been reported.

In New Mexico, there have been reports of illness in Bernalillo, Cibola, Curry, Doña Ana, Grant, McKinley, Otero, San Juan, Sandoval and Socorro counties.

Salmonella symptoms include fever and abdominal cramps 12-72 hours after infection, and moderate to severe diarrhea.

The illness usually lasts four to seven days, and most people are able to recover without treatment, although some require hospitalization due to severe diarrhea.

The agency suggests that people in the state only eat tomatoes that haven’t been linked to the outbreak, including cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached and home-grown tomatoes, including those from local farmers markets.

Health Secretary Alfredo Vigil said a large portion of the bad tomatoes were sold by Wal-Mart in Las Cruces and Farmington, Lowe’s in Las Cruces, and Basha’s in Crownpoint. He strongly advised that consumers that bought tomatoes there since May 3 should not eat the products uncooked.

A spokesperson from Smith’s Food and Drug Store in Los Alamos was unavailable for comment.

The CDC is advising consumers in New Mexico and Texas with increased health risks, such as the elderly and those with impaired immune systems to avoid eating raw Roma or round red tomatoes. Avoiding bruised, damaged or possibly spoiled tomatoes is also important, the report states.

For those that plan on cooking with tomatoes, the CDC suggests consumers wash all tomatoes thoroughly under running water, refrigerate them within two hours and keep tomatoes away from raw meats, seafood, and other raw produce items.

Washing cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter tops with hot water and soap is also recommended when switching between types of food products.

State officials have indicated that many of the bad tomatoes in New Mexico may have come from their neighbor to the south.

“It’s really preliminary at this point, but New Mexico gets most of its tomatoes from Mexico at this time of year,” Deborah Busemeyer, the New Mexico Department of Health’s communication’s director told The Packer, a publication dedicated to the produce industry. “Preliminary indications are that the tomatoes are from Mexico.”

The FDA issued a release saying it “recognizes that the source of the contaminated tomatoes may be limited to a single grower or packer or tomatoes from a specific geographic area.”

In July 2006, 564 confirmed cases of salmonella were linked with the consumption of contaminated tomatoes purchased at Sheetz Food Store.

Illness was reported in four states, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and Virginia.

In late 2006, two outbreaks of salmonella also blamed on bad tomatoes were reported by the FDA. One caused nearly 100 illnesses in 19 states, the other involved 183 people in 21 states.