Tomato scare unlikely to alter laws

The salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 167 people in 17 states isn't bad enough to generate national food-safety laws, said a leading lawyer specializing in food-borne illness cases.

"It is going to take, unfortunately, an outbreak like the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993, where you had 600 people sick and four little kids die," said Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer.

The current outbreak, which dates to mid-April, probably is larger than is being reported, he said.

"For every person they are counting, there are about 40 other people who got sick that they are not counting," Marler said. "This outbreak is a lot bigger than 167 people. It is 40 times that number."

Federal officials said Wednesday they were "getting very close" to finding the source of the Salmonella Saintpaul infection that has been linked to three kinds of tomatoes: red Roma, red plum and red round. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has advised consumers to avoid those tomatoes unless they were grown in places on the agency's "safe list."

The 19 counties in Florida where tomatoes are now being harvested were added Tuesday to the safe list, but tomatoes harvested in Central Florida in April are still under investigation, said David Acheson, FDA associate commissioner for foods.

Mexico is also under scrutiny as a possible source of the outbreak, he said.

Florida's tomato industry, which has an estimated annual economic impact of $1.1 billion, operated this season under new rules that will become mandatory July 1. The rules cover tomato growing, packing and handling practices, and require traceability, said Shannon Shepp, director of the Florida Agriculture Department's division of fruits and vegetables.

Those rules made it easier to comply with the FDA's cleanliness-certificate protocol after the 19 counties were added to the safe list, she said.

"We knew they had the documentation in place that we could review," Shepp said.

Growers think it's unlikely any Florida produce was involved in the illnesses, which were first reported in New Mexico and Texas, said Lisa Lochridge, spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in Maitland. Shipping Florida tomatoes to those two states would be too expensive, she said.

U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, said Wednesday he's hopeful the outbreak will advance food-safety legislation he proposed in April with Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif.