(July 1, 4:55 p.m.) The Food and Drug Administration has expanded its investigation of a Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak beyond tomatoes, but associate commissioner for foods David Acheson declined to specify what other produce items public health officials are scrutinizing.

Acheson said during a July 1 media briefing that it would be “irresponsible” to name other commodities at this point in the investigation.

However, Patricia Griffin, chief of the enteric diseases epidemiology branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pointed out during a June 27 media briefing that some victims ate tomatoes in dishes such as salsa and guacamole. The CDC said in a July 1 news release that it was looking at “food items that are commonly consumed with tomatoes.”

Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, said July 1 there were 869 reported illnesses in 36 states and Washington, D.C. He said at least 107 people have been hospitalized.

As of July 1, the most recent onset date of illness was June 20, he said. However, it can take more than two weeks for illnesses to be reported to public health officials.

People sickened since June 1

Tauxe said CDC and other agencies are focusing on a growing list of 179 people who have become ill since June 1. He said tomatoes continue to be the lead suspect in the outbreak, but investigators are looking at other unidentified items as well.

Acheson said investigators are “looking at all possible explanations as to why this outbreak is still ongoing and what other foods might be implicated.”

Those possibilities, he said, could be one grower contaminating multiple crops, a contaminated water source affecting more than one commodity and more than one grower, multiple commodities being contaminated by a common shipper or distributor or other means of cross-contamination.

CDC initially linked the multistate outbreak to fresh roma and red round tomatoes June 2, and that agency and the FDA advised consumers in Texas and New Mexico not to eat those varieties. That advisory was amended June 7, warning consumers nationwide not to eat roma or red round tomatoes unless they were sourced from areas approved by FDA.

Many restaurants and retailers responded by pulling the implicated varieties.

Despite the expansion of the investigation, Acheson said FDA has not altered its advice to consumers.

“Tomatoes aren’t off the hook,” he said. “We’re still advising consumers as we were before. It’s just that there’s clearly a need to look beyond tomatoes.”

The agencies’ inability to determine the source or the cause of the outbreak led Western Growers to ask the House Committee on Agriculture to have a hearing about the investigation, according to a June 28 news release from Western Growers.

Authority requested

Acheson reiterated that FDA has asked Congress for authority to implement preventative controls for high-risk crops, including tomatoes.

He said that is just one step needed to prevent similar outbreaks in the future. Acheson also said FDA is considering an interagency task force to improve efficiency and communication between federal, state and local health officials.

Acheson also called for the produce industry to adopt more modern, electronic record keeping to accelerate the traceback process. He said it was “illogical” that some companies still use paper records rather than computers.

Meanwhile, Acheson said the Food Emergency Response Network has been activated, meaning lab capacity will be increased as public health officials begin to take more samples of more types of food products.

Acheson said June 27 that FDA had tested about 1,700 samples, mostly of tomatoes, and all had been negative for Salmonella Saintpaul. Investigators also are taking water and environmental samples from farms, packing sheds, repacking operations and distribution centers.