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Ohio Salmonella Cases Examined

By BETHENY HOLSTEIN with Wire Dispatches

Wheeling News Register

WHEELING - As the investigation continues into the cause of a salmonella outbreak affecting at least 188 people in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the number of suspected cases are on the rise as 13 Ohioians have become ill possibly as the result of eating at a Sheetz convenience store.

Ohio Department of Health spokesman Kristopher Weiss said Wednesday that only two of the 13 cases in Ohio had the same bacterial strain, known as javiana, that's being investigated in Pennsylvania. More testing is being done, Weiss said.

Meanwhile investigations continue at Coronet Foods Inc. - the Wheeling-based distributor that supplied the tomatoes to the Sheetz stores.

According to Coronet Foods Inc. Director of Food Safety and Quality Assurance Manager Alicia Thayer, no new test results have been received that would identify the cause of the salmonella outbreak, but she did say the investigation is ongoing.

"Nothing's been confirmed yet as to the source of this salmonella," Thayer said.

On Monday, she said the company did have a sample of sliced Roma tomatoes come back with a positive test for salmonella, but she pointed out that the strain found was not the javiana type that was found in the patients diagnosed with salmonellosis.

Thayer confirmed that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has begun its search to try and determine the origin of the outbreak by completing a process called a trace-back.

"This begins with the Sheetz stores and moves downstream to us because we are the processor. Then it moves to the supplier, then to the farm," Thayer said. "We are just one part of that whole process."

The Wheeling food company stopped processing its line of Roma tomatoes last week as a safety measure when health department officials began to investigate Roma tomatoes as a potential cause of the illness. The company quarantined any remaining inventory of Roma tomatoes off site.

Thayer said Coronet Foods also completed environmental testing of its tomato and non-tomato areas at its Wheeling processing facility, which included the analysis of samples taken from food contact and non-contact surfaces such as equipment, floors, walls, drains and ceilings. The results of the environmental tests were negative, Thayer said.

On Wednesday, Thayer said the Roma tomato lines are still not running and will not be back on line until all the testing is complete and concrete information is discovered.

Thayer could not comment on the origin of the tomatoes being processed at the plant. However, unconfirmed reports indicate the tomatoes originated in Florida.

"At this point, we are not discussing our growers or our suppliers," Thayer said, adding that the majority of the suppliers are domestic and from the southeastern region of the country.

Information from Coronet states sliced Roma tomatoes represent only 1 percent of the company's entire line, nearly all of which is distributed to one customer. Tomato processing is a totally separate operation within the facilities at Coronet Foods.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture said Tuesday it had tested 206 of 235 samples of lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and mayonnaise taken from 10 Sheetz stores in Pennsylvania, department spokeswoman Kristina Watson said. The department has not yet found a link to the people who were sickened by the salmonella bacteria.

Pennsylvania officials had believed that tainted tomatoes or lettuce, or both, were to blame because those who got sick ate those foods and because they ingested a strain of salmonella usually found on produce. Those sickened in Pennsylvania bought sandwiches from at least 16 Sheetz stores, company officials have said.

But the salmonella strain found on the tomatoes - taken from a Sheetz store in Greencastle, about 60 miles southwest of Harrisburg - was different from the one responsible for the illnesses, officials said.

Besides the 170 people in Pennsylvania, West Virginia officials reported 18 people were sickened - including two that didn't eat at Sheetz but had contact with people who did. Health officials in Ohio, Maryland and Virginia said 31 salmonella cases in those states may be linked to Sheetz stores, but they were waiting for more test results.

Salmonellosis, an infection caused by salmonella bacteria that can contaminate food or water, generally causes diarrhea, fever and cramps for up to three days. The bacteria are spread through the feces of infected animals and humans.

Sheetz, based in Altoona, Pa., pulled all tomatoes and lettuce from its 300-plus stores in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina after the salmonella cases were first reported last week. The stores sanitized their deli areas, switched suppliers and brought in new produce.

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