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Source of salmonella outbreak not yet found

Test on tomatoes finds non-harmful type of bacteria

Joe Fahy, Christopher Snowbeck, and Torsten Ove

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

July 20, 2004

Although state laboratory tests found salmonella yesterday in an unopened bag of Roma tomatoes, officials later determined that it was not the same kind of salmonella that has sickened at least 110 people this month in Pennsylvania and about 40 in nearby states.

The state Department of Agriculture reported yesterday that salmonella bacteria were found in an unopened bag of Roma tomatoes taken from a Sheetz store in Greencastle, Franklin County.

But state health department test results later in the day indicated that the salmonella was not the bacterial strain called Javiana, which is known to be responsible for the recent outbreak of illness, said department spokesman Richard McGarvey.

Alicia Thayer, director of food safety for Coronet Foods Inc. of Wheeling, W.Va., which supplied sliced tomatoes and lettuce to Sheetz stores, said she was told yesterday by a state agriculture department official that the type of salmonella found in the bag did not pose a health risk. But test results clearly indicated that the salmonella found in the bag was "not linked to the current outbreak," he said.

Meanwhile, the outbreak spawned its first lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court against Coronet Foods by a Butler County couple who said they got sick from sandwiches they purchased at a Sheetz store.

Yesterday's developments left state officials still searching for what caused the outbreak of salmonellosis, which causes diarrhea, fever and cramps and typically lasts four to seven days. Most victims recover without treatment.

Even without verification from testing, McGarvey said, the cause of the outbreak could be Roma tomatoes sold at Sheetz stores. Sheetz officials have suspected that tomatoes supplied to their stores contributed to the outbreak.

Often, linking an organism to an outbreak is difficult, McGarvey said, because contaminated food is consumed before samples can be taken.

So far, the agriculture department has tested 169 of the 234 samples of tomatoes, lettuce, mayonnaise and cheese that were collected. Other tests are planned.

Most of the samples taken were from Sheetz stores, but 39 were taken from food warehouses that also bought tomatoes from Coronet Foods.

Bobby McLean, director of the food safety bureau for the state agriculture department, would not release names of the warehouses because their products have not been implicated.

Last week, a Coronet official said 99 percent of the company's sliced Roma tomatoes were sold to Sheetz. But McLean said he did not know how many pounds of tomatoes that 1 percent represents. Moreover, Coronet distributes tomatoes in other forms.

The number sickened by the outbreak in Pennsylvania stood at 70 on Friday. McGarvey said the additional cases reported yesterday do not necessarily indicate the outbreak is continuing.

Those cases, like cases reported earlier, were linked to food consumed in the first half of July, McGarvey said.

No additional cases have occurred since Sheetz restocked its lettuce and tomatoes last week in response to the outbreak, he said.

The tomatoes that tested positive for salmonella yesterday were distributed by Coronet Foods and came from Central Florida.

In a prepared statement, Coronet said it is continuing to take steps to ensure the safety of its products.

Last week, as a precautionary measure, the company voluntarily suspended purchasing and processing Roma tomatoes, and remaining inventory of those tomatoes was quarantined off site, officials said.

Coronet Foods also has completed environmental testing at its West Virginia processing facility, which included analysis of samples taken from food contact and non-contact surfaces including equipment, floors, walls, drains and ceilings. The results were negative, the company said.

The West Virginia Department of Health confirmed yesterday that testing on water samples taken at Coronet Foods last Thursday was negative, the company said.

McLean said contamination with the Javiana strain of salmonella is more likely to occur on farms because wild animals often carry it. Humans are less likely to have that type of salmonella infection, McLean said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also is working to find the source of the contamination.

There was evidence yesterday that the outbreak's impact was diminishing. Hospital officials in Westmoreland County, where many of the sick sought treatment, were reporting few, if any, new cases over the weekend.

In Maryland, 19 people with salmonellosis ate at Sheetz. Of those, 16 were sickened by bacteria very similar to the Javiana strain, with 11 cases considered "probable or confirmed" Javiana cases, said John Hammond, a state health department spokesman. Hammond noted that all those who got sick ate Sheetz food during the first week of July.

In West Virginia, 16 people with salmonellosis reported eating at a Sheetz in June or July, said Dr. Danae Bixler of the state's health department. But tests on the bacterial strain are not complete. That's also true of nine patients in Ohio with salmonellosis cases who ate at Sheetz.

Virginia officials said fewer than five cases in that state could be linked to the outbreak.

In the lawsuit filed yesterday, James and Suzanne Groves of West Sunbury sued Coronet Foods, saying they got sick after eating sandwiches from Sheetz that contained contaminated tomatoes supplied by Coronet.

The lawsuit said James Groves, 40, ate a sandwich from Sheetz on July 2, got sick the next day and went to the hospital with flu-like symptoms. Suzanne Groves had similar symptoms.


(Christopher Snowbeck can be reached at or 412-263-2625. Joe Fahy can be reached at or 412-263-1722. Torsten Ove can be reached at or 412-263-2620.)

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