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Q&A | Salmonella outbreak

Some tomato varieties sicken dozens of people

Has the refreshing red tomato turned hazardous?

After federal health officials warned Saturday of a nationwide salmonella outbreak affecting certain varieties of the fruit, many local restaurants, fast-food chains and supermarkets took no chances.

From the salsa selection at Chipotle Mexican Grill to the produce aisle at Publix, tomatoes and foods made with them were pulled from menus and store shelves across the country this week.

Officials say they have no idea when the much-loved tomato will reappear.

How serious is the threat?

Most people aren't at risk for the most serious health problems or death, but the Food and Drug Administration cautions against eating many tomato varieties just in case. Certain types — raw red Roma, raw red plum, raw red round tomatoes and any products made with them — have been linked to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened 145 people nationwide since mid April, the FDA announced. At least 23 people have been hospitalized in total.

Have any cases been reported in Florida?

No, according to Amy Alexander, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health. Cases have been reported in 16 states, though none in the Southeast. None of those cases have been traced to any Florida-grown tomatoes, said Liz Compton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "We know they're okay," she said.

What are local restaurants and supermarkets doing to keep us safe?

They are heeding the FDA's warning, it appears. It may have been a painful step, but at Sweet Tomatoes in Tampa, all tomatoes have been stricken from the menu.

At another restaurant, Maggiano's Little Italy, a large chunk of the menu is off-limits because of the tomato scare.

But patrons do not seem to mind that the Italian restaurant's food suddenly seems far less Italian, said Paula Wallace, an assistant manager.

"They'd rather be safe," she said, "than not."

Many chain restaurants, from McDonald's to Chipotle, also pulled tomatoes or tomato-related products from their menus.

And at supermarkets like Publix, Winn-Dixie and ShopRite, once-filled produce aisles are suddenly a bit more bare.

At Publix stores over the weekends, workers harvested the tomatoes in question from produce aisles, tossed them in garbage bags and threw them in trash compactors "out of an abundance of caution," said Shannon Patten, a Publix spokeswoman.

What about the tomatoes I bought a few days ago? Do I have to throw them out?

It depends. Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached are not affected by the outbreak, according to the FDA.

And all other tomatoes from certain places — Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Belgium, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel, the Netherlands and Puerto Rico — should be safe, too.

But in all other cases, the FDA recommends finding something else to put on that hamburger. And washing your tomatoes won't make them safe, said Kimberly Rawlings, an FDA spokeswoman.

"There is a potential for salmonella to have been in the tomato and not just on the tomato," she said.

I had tomato salad yesterday, and now I feel sick. Could I have salmonella?

Perhaps. Symptoms of salmonella include fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain and tend to appear within 12 to 72 hours of contracting the infection, according to the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Salmonella can be particularly serious — and even fatal — in cases of young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

Thomas Kaplan can be reached at (813) 2263404 or tkaplan@sptimes.com.

Some tomato varieties sicken dozens of people 06/09/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 13, 2008 3:21pm]
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