(June 20, 2:25 p.m.) Three weeks into a traceback investigation of a Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak linked to fresh tomatoes, the Food and Drug Administration still had not pinpointed the source.

Tom Cignarella, president of New York distributor Morris Okun Inc., said the agency’s inability to find the origin of the outbreak was preventing the category from making a speedy recovery.

“We’re feeling the repercussions,” he said June 19. “You have some people taking tomatoes and some people resisting. People are still worried.”

David Acheson, the FDA’s associate commissioner for foods, said the agency’s “most fruitful lead to date,” is a cluster of nine cases in one geographic area. Acheson declined to identify the location of the cluster, but The Chicago Tribune reported June 18 that the Chicago Department of Public Health said nine of the city’s 17 cases were reported by people ill after eating at Adobo Grill’s two restaurants on Chicago’s north side.

The cluster is significant because 17 of the 30 states affected by the outbreak have five or fewer reported cases.

Acheson said there is a “high likelihood” that Florida or Mexico is the source of the outbreak. The FDA has cleared 19 Florida counties and Baja California.

Acheson, however, acknowledged state and federal investigators might never be able to identify the source of the outbreak.

“I’m still optimistic,” he said, “but I’m trying to be realistic.”

Meanwhile, the CDC said June 18 that the number of reported cases had swelled to 383.

Ian Williams, chief of the CDC unit that investigates outbreaks, said that for every reported case there likely are at least 30 more illnesses that have not been reported.

He said at least 48 people have been hospitalized.

Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, said June 18 that the most recent reported illness had an onset date of June 5.

“It’s too early to say it’s peaked. It’s certainly not over,” he said of the outbreak.

As of June 19, the FDA’s list of approved sourcing areas for roma, red plum and round red tomatoes had grown to include nearly 40 states and six foreign countries.

“Our customers can be confident that the supply is safe, and we feel business should gradually start picking up as we head into the pivotal Fourth of July period,” said Brendan Comito, chief operating officer of tomato repacker Capital City Fruit Co. Inc., Des Moines, Iowa.

There was some good news for the tomato category. Yum! Brands Inc., Louisville, Ky., announced June 16 that A&W, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Long John Silver’s, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell were restocking tomatoes after pulling product earlier in the month. Hamburger chains McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s also have resumed offering tomatoes.

Many retailers, including Kroger, Publix, Wal-Mart and Wegmans, also are offering tomatoes from approved areas.

Hunt continues for source of salmonella outbreak
A Primuslabs.com microbiologist adds salmonella enrichment to a tomato sample received in the company's corporate Santa Maria, Calif., laboratory. Primuslabs.com also has full pathogen labs in Salinas, Calif., and Yuma, Ariz.

Courtesy Primuslabs.com