Maybe it's not the tomatoes after all.
That was the news from federal health officials Tuesday as they acknowledged that they've been stymied in their search for a culprit in an ongoing outbreak of salmonella that has affected nearly 900 people in 36 states since April.
After warning consumers for weeks that tomatoes were the prime suspect, officials with the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they are broadening their search to include other produce items.
"Tomatoes aren't off the hook," said Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for foods. "But now we're expanding the investigation to additional produce items commonly served with tomatoes."
While the CDC's early investigation showed that more than 80 percent of those ill with salmonella had reported eating fresh tomatoes, Acheson said those tomatoes could have been eaten in salads or as part of another dish, such as salsa. Mindful of criticism that such warnings had translated into major losses for tomato growers, estimated at $500-million in Florida, officials declined to be more specific about their new targets.
"Frankly, it would be irresponsible to say specifically where we're expanding our testing," Acheson said, dodging questions about whether the search includes items such as lettuce, carrots and radishes. "As we expand our investigation and new information comes online, we'll update our consumer messages as needed."
For the time being, the FDA's warning to consumers is to continue to avoid red round and Roma tomatoes grown in states that have not been cleared by the agency. Florida tomatoes are on the "safe-to-eat" list, as are cherry and grape tomatoes, as well as tomatoes on the vine.
Terence McElroy, spokesman for Florida's department of agriculture, said the FDA's expanded investigation is unlikely to affect the state's growers. Few crops are still being harvested in the state for commercial sale, he said. And if the FDA is looking at salsa ingredients, such as cilantro or jalapeno peppers, they won't find commercial producers of those crops in Florida.
More than half of the cases of Salmonella Saintpaul were identified in three states: Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. One case has been identified in Florida, but that person ate tomatoes elsewhere.
Dr. Robert Tauxe of the CDC said the investigation has been hampered by consumers' inability to remember what they ate and where they ate it. "We have to rely on people's memory of things that are not memorable," he said, adding that the most recent case of illness began June 20.
The FDA's Acheson said the produce distribution system, in which items go through several packers and shippers between the field and the store, also has hampered the search.
"The pace has been frustratingly slow,'' said Acheson, adding that the FDA has just activated an emergency system that will involve more labs in testing for the strain. "The investigation is focusing on the entire production chain, trying to determine spots along the route where fresh ingredients may come into contact with each other and become contaminated."
Bob Spencer, co-owner of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, is not surprised to see officials backing off tomatoes and focusing on other produce. But that is little comfort after watching his sales take a blow over the past few weeks.
"What Katrina did for FEMA, the salmonella case is going to do for the FDA," he said. "They have to learn to be much more prudent in ringing the alarm bells."
Kris Hundley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2996.