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Salmonella scare holds the tomato

The tomato is quickly disappearing, albeit temporarily, from many restaurants and grocery stores due to a major salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 167 people, the latest in a series of disease flare-ups in the U.S. food chain.

Oak Brook-based McDonald's confirmed Monday that it has pulled tomatoes from its sandwiches, though the company hasn't detected salmonella bacteria in any of its tomato supplies. Other restaurant chains such as Burger King and Taco Bell have taken the same precaution, as have grocery stores, including Chicago's leading supermarkets, Jewel and Dominick's.

Since mid-April, people in 17 states have been infected with a rare strain of bacteria known as Salmonella Saintpaul, which has been linked to several kinds of raw tomatoes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. The bulk of the cases have been in Texas and New Mexico, and 23 of them have required hospitalization.

In Illinois, 27 people have been diagnosed with Salmonella Saintpaul, said Melany Arnold, spokeswoman for the state's Department of Public Health. The state is "not yet ready to say" the salmonella outbreak here is related to tomatoes.

But "we are urging people to heed the [Food and Drug Administration] recommendations on tomato consumption," Arnold said.

The FDA on Saturday said consumers should not eat raw red round tomatoes, as well as raw red Roma and plum tomatoes. The agency advised restaurants and grocery stores not to offer those types of tomatoes for sale.

However, there are geographic exceptions. The FDA says consumers and companies can continue using or selling tomatoes grown in 19 states listed on its Web site. The list includes California, one of the biggest producers, but not Florida, another top tomato state.

The salmonella outbreak is the latest of several in the tomato industry, but it appears to be the first where the FDA has publicly advised food companies to avoid selling the product.

McDonald's, for instance, didn't banish tomatoes during salmonella scares earlier this decade. But after the FDA weighed in last week, tomatoes disappeared from the company's premium chicken sandwiches and Big N' Tasty burgers.

"With an abundance of caution, we want to make sure our food items containing tomatoes are absolutely safe," Bill Whitman, a McDonald's spokesman, said Monday. Tomatoes are expected back when the FDA gives the all clear on the salmonella outbreak, which likely would require determining the origin.

Other food companies reacting included Chipotle, which pulled tomato salsa from its menu. The FDA says raw tomatoes are often used in fresh salsa, pico de gallo and guacamole.

However, raw cherry tomatoes and grape tomatoes don't present a problem, the FDA says. So McDonald's, for example, will continue to serve grape tomatoes in its premium salads.

Consumers unlucky enough to contract salmonella usually develop diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. The illness shows up 12 to 72 hours after eating tainted food and often lasts four to seven days. Most people recover without treatment.

Salmonella, a bacteria that lives in the intestines of humans and other animals, is usually transmitted to people by eating foods contaminated with animal feces.

The FDA hasn't traced the origin of the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, but a New Mexico Department of Health official told the Albuquerque Journal last week that preliminary information points to Mexico as the source.

From a growing-season perspective, that would make sense, some tomato safety experts say.

"I wouldn't be surprised, because it's the right time of the year," said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food contamination cases, including some involving tomatoes.

It's still relatively early in the tomato-growing season in a good part of the U.S.

Past salmonella scares involving tomatoes usually have involved U.S. producers. Two years ago, two separate outbreaks each hit about 20 states. Another in 2004 sickened more than 500.

Statistically, the frequency of salmonella tainting tomatoes is low, said Trevor Suslow, a researcher at the University of California at Davis and a specialist in fresh-produce safety. But since the tomato is such a popular item, the chances are greater that salmonella scares will be associated with it, he said.

The salmonella bacteria has a hard time growing on the tough, waxy skin of the tomato, but not so when the fruit is cut, whether accidentally nicked in the field or chopped up, said Jerry Bartz, a plant pathologist and produce specialist at the University of Florida. When a tomato is cut, salmonella microbes feed off the fruit's sap.

In fact, the bacteria can be spread in the chopping process, as one bad tomato taints the blade of a slicer, which in turn can taint more tomatoes, Bartz said.

Over the past couple of years, the U.S. tomato industry has gone on an offensive to adopt better practices to stem salmonella outbreaks.

"There has been a lot of activity over the past two years," said UC Davis's Suslow.

That activity has paralleled attempts to improve safety in the spinach industry, linked to that business' E. coli debacle in 2006, Suslow said. California-grown spinach poisoned at least 200 and led to at least three deaths.

The spinach E. coli outbreak, along with other food scares, shook confidence in the country's food-safety system. And it took a huge bite out of spinach sales.

In 2006, the tomato industry came up with a set of "best practices" to bolster its defenses, said David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety at the United Fresh Produce Association, a trade group. An updated version of the safety guidelines is due out soon, he said.

Some of the guidelines are quite simple, such as not using pond water to spray tomatoes. A grower who sprayed pond water, not fresh water, may have been a factor in a previous salmonella outbreak.

Growers also are urged to take better measures to keep animals out of tomato fields. Frogs carrying the salmonella bacteria may have caused another outbreak. Another guideline: putting hand-washing stations next to bathrooms in the tomato fields.

The latest salmonella outbreak, particularly if it didn't originate in Mexico, is likely to put more pressure on the tomato business.

"This is certainly the most well-publicized outbreak linked to tomatoes," Gombas said.

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