PITTSBURGH - The first batch of food samples taken from Sheetz convenience stores in Pennsylvania showed no trace of the salmonella bacteria that has sickened dozens of people, all of whom ate at Sheetz stores.
State health and agriculture officials said the negative tests results don't mean that people didn't get sick from eating the chain's food.
"Certainly the common thread is eating at Sheetz, and specifically at the deli section," said Richard McGarvey, a state Health Department spokesman. The negative test results "likely mean that the particular lot (of food) that was causing the problem has been all used up" before the food samples were taken.
The test results, announced Friday, came from 44 samples of lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and mayonnaise taken from 10 Pennsylvania Sheetz stores by the state Department of Agriculture. Results on the rest of the 197 samples taken aren't expected until this weekend.
Also Friday, the Food and Drug administration said it had counted 57 people in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia who ate at Sheetz stores and were sickened - but that was before Pennsylvania health officials updated the number of Sheetz-related cases in that state to 70.
Dozens more people are sick in Ohio, Virginia, and Maryland, but health officials haven't yet determined if those people also ate at the Altoona-based chain.
Sheetz pulled all the tomatoes and lettuce in its 300-plus stores after the salmonella cases were first reported earlier this week. The stores sanitized their deli areas, switched suppliers and brought in new produce.
Customers at several of the six Sheetz stores in Butler County had a mixed reaction to the salmonella cases.
Andy Buzzard, a customer at the Sheetz on New Castle Road in Butler Township on Friday, is not concerned.
"It doesn't bother me," said Buzzard who said he buys food at Sheetz frequently.
Karen Duster of Butler, who stopped at the Sheetz on the Evans City Road Friday to fill her vehicle with gas, said she is a bit hesitant to buy food there.
Duster said while driving in the Dubois area on Sunday, she and her husband stopped at a Sheetz for food.
"(My husband) had tomatoes and everything," she said.
On Monday, both Duster and her husband felt ill, with symptoms common to those exposed to salmonella.
"We didn't report it or anything," she said.
"We've gotten the hoagies here for as long as I can remember," said Duster. "We'll probably be a little hesitant for a while."
"It's a shame," she said, comparing the customer response at Sheetz to that of customers to the hepatitis A outbreak at a Chi Chi's restaurant in Beaver County last fall.
As she pumped gas at the Slippery Rock Sheetz, Christine Carney of Elizabeth said she stops at Sheetz quite often for gas, but has never had one of its sandwiches or salads. Carney has a summer home in Slippery Rock.
The news about the salmonella outbreak would stop her from trying one now, she said. "That would definitely be a deterrent," she said.
State health officials said there is no evidence that Sheetz employees spread the bacteria, and the multiple locations indicates a tainted food supply is most likely. Those sickened in Pennsylvania got sandwiches from at least 16 stores in the Pittsburgh area and along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, company officials have said.
All the food samples tested by the state Department of Agriculture were collected before the new produce was brought in, said Kristina Watson, a state agriculture spokeswoman.
A lack of positive test results could prevent or delay efforts by the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to trace the source of the bacteria.
The FDA and CDC wait for specific food samples to test positive before they review shipping manifests and other records that show where that food originated. From there, federal officials interview others along the supply chain to try to determine how the food was contaminated.
State health officials believe tainted tomatoes or lettuce, or both, are to blame because those who got sick ate those items, and because tests show they ingested a kind of salmonella that is usually found on fresh produce. State agriculture officials included samples of cheese and mayonnaise because most victims ate those foods, too, even though the type of salmonella found in this outbreak is usually not present on egg or dairy foods.
"We want to make sure we're covering everything," Watson said. "We feel it's important to test more (foods) than to test less and maybe miss something."
Salmonellosis, an infection caused by salmonella bacteria that can contaminate food or water, generally causes diarrhea, fever and cramps for up to three days. It is not often fatal. The bacteria are spread through the feces of infected animals and humans.