Government gives tomatoes the all clear in salmonella outbreak

WASHINGTON -- The big dark cloud no longer hangs over that summertime favorite -- the tomato.

No more wondering what types are safe to eat, or if you're buying them from the right state. The government gave the all-clear Thursday to eat all varieties of tomatoes, lifting its salmonella warning amid signs that the record outbreak, while not over, may finally be slowing.

That's not to say that tomatoes weren't responsible in the first place. Those harvested earlier may have been, the Food and Drug Administration said.

But hot peppers now are the probe's main focus. Federal health officials reiterated that the people most at risk of salmonella -- including the elderly and anyone with weak immune systems -- should avoid fresh jalapeños and serranos, and dishes that may contain them, such as fresh salsas.

Investigators still don't know what caused the salmonella outbreak, which has sickened 1,220 people in 42 states, the earliest of whom fell ill on April 10 and the latest on July 4.

Thursday's move comes as the tomato industry estimates its losses at more than $100 million.

"This is not saying that anybody was absolved," said Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's food safety chief. But, "as of today, FDA officials believe that consumers may now enjoy all types of fresh tomatoes available without concern of becoming infected with salmonella Saintpaul," the outbreak strain.

Early on, there was good evidence linking certain raw tomatoes -- plums, Romas and red rounds -- to the sick, Acheson stressed. Yet inspectors haven't found the outbreak strain on any farms in suspected areas of south Florida and parts of Mexico, where they've managed to trace tomatoes that were thought to have been eaten by patients. Nor are those farms still shipping tomatoes.

As the outbreak stretched into last month, more evidence emerged against fresh jalapeños. The FDA sent inspectors to a Mexican packinghouse that supplied peppers linked to a cluster of those illnesses.

Also still on the suspect list is fresh cilantro.

Could peppers have caused the entire outbreak, and just been missed early on?

"We're not in the business of speculating," Acheson said. "Clearly many will. We're just trying to follow the science, and that's what we've done."

Now the puzzle is how multiple types of produce could be contaminated with what is a rare type of salmonella. One possibility is that a large farm grew tomatoes in one section and peppers in another, and both went through a common washing station with contaminated water, Acheson said.

The tomato industry -- which held an unprecedented meeting with FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach and other officials Monday -- welcomed the announcement.

"We have long been confident that Florida's tomatoes were not associated with the salmonella Saintpaul outbreak," said the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, whose farmers are deciding whether to start planting for a fall tomato harvest. "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."

In Monday's meeting, the industry urged the FDA to share more details of its investigation so producers could offer more, possibly helpful, information. If the sick were more likely to fall ill from chain restaurants than mom-and-pops, for instance, the industry could help point the FDA toward different lines of suppliers, explained Kathy Means of the Produce Marketing Association. The FDA promised to consider the request.

There are signs that the outbreak is slowing, said Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC charted the dates when the ill say they fell sick. From April to mid-May, illnesses steadily rose. From May 20 to June 10, the outbreak hit a plateau, with about 33 people a day becoming ill. From June 11 to June 20, the number dropped to 19 people a day becoming ill.

Those are latest available statistics, because it can take two weeks or longer for the CDC to receive confirmation that someone who is sick has the implicated salmonella strain.

For every salmonella case the CDC confirms, it estimates there are 30 to 40 more that go undocumented, perhaps because people don't see a doctor or undergo the right testing.