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FDA Declares All Tomatoes Safe to Eat Following Salmonella Outbreak

WASHINGTON _ The Food and Drug Administration declared Thursday it is again safe to eat all tomatoes now on sale in the U.S., canceling its warning in June that some tomatoes were the cause of a still-unsolved outbreak of salmonella poisoning.

At the same time, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that those who are young, elderly or who suffer from weak immune systems should not eat fresh jalapeno or Serrano peppers, since the latest scientific detective work points to those peppers as a source of this particular strain of the bacteria, salmonella saintpaul. That warning includes fresh peppers in such foods as salsa.

The new pepper warning suggests that government scientists are feeling more confident about signs that point to bad peppers as a source of the illnesses, which have so far afflicted 1,196 people in 42 states, the District of Columbia and Canada, according to the CDC. They stopped short, however of issuing a broad warning not to eat peppers.

Illinois has reported 113 salmonella-related illnesses, the second highest among states, according to the CDC. Texas, where the outbreak was first discovered, ranks first with 456.

Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC's Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, said that the number of illnesses, which began in April, appear to be waning.

"Although it appears that the outbreak is ongoing and we do not have evidence that it is over," Tauxe said, "it does appear to be decreasing in intensity beginning in mid-June."

Tauxe and David Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for foods, both stressed during a news briefing that it still isn't clear what has caused the salmonella illnesses. But they said that fresh tomatoes, which have a short shelf-life, should now be safe to eat.

Acheson said that initial interviews with victims suggested that tomatoes were to blame, while clusters of illnesses in states like Illinois revealed that jalapeno peppers were commonly consumed among those who fell ill.

Acheson noted that FDA investigators are now focused on a single pepper-packing operation in Mexico. He said that evidence from that packing firm isn't complete. He said FDA investigators followed the pepper supply chain back to that packing company, which he initially referred to as a farm.

"The trace back at least at this point has that farm in the chain," he said. "As with tomatoes, we're looking at all points on the supply chain which are critical."

The FDA and CDC issued a warning on June 7 directing consumers to avoid raw red plum, red roma and red round tomatoes. The warnings caused a drop across the board in tomato sales, costing growers, packers and grocers millions of dollars.

Acheson said Thursday that the best evidence available then implicated tomatoes. But as the illnesses continued to be reported, the FDA and CDC failed to find salmonella on the tests conducted on any suspect tomatoes.

Growers have been pressing the FDA to rescind its warning, noting that there was no hard evidence that tomatoes were the cause. They welcomed Thursday's announcement, even though it comes too late in the growing season for many commercial farms.

"We have long been confident that Florida's tomatoes were not associated with the salmonella saintpaul outbreak," the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange said in a statement, "and this week our industry called on the FDA to clear our products. Tomatoes from Florida's growing regions have been gone from the marketplace for weeks, so they could not have been the source of the contamination."

Acheson said that FDA investigators never found salmonella on any of the farms they visited in the U.S. or Mexico, ruling out farms as a source of contamination. But eliminating the farms hasn't made the search for the salmonella source any easier.

"We still do not know where the original contamination point was," Acheson said, "and we're pushing as hard today as we were in the beginning."

But the FDA's decision to now focus solely on peppers has only further angered agency critics.

"It is absolutely outrageous that we are 90 days into the salmonella outbreak and the FDA and CDC still cannot determine the source of contamination," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, on Tuesday sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, criticizing the agency's performance.

"It seems highly unlikely that tomatoes harvested in April would still be consumed fresh by consumers in late June," Harkin wrote to Leavitt, who is responsible for the FDA. "It does not make sense why there remains a strong warning against eating certain fresh tomatoes when most states have been cleared by FDA as having produced tomatoes not implicated in the salmonella outbreak."

Jim Prevor, who runs Produce Business magazine and the Perishable Pundit blog, said that a "political push" led to Thursday's FDA decision to clear tomatoes. He said evidence that tomatoes were not to blame has been apparent for weeks.

"This is a good thing for the tomato growers," Prevor said. "The problem is that it is not a principled decision. There's no more reason to do it today or to do it yesterday or tomorrow."

___

(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune.

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