(June 5, 1:29 p.m.) Nearly 90 cases of Salmonella Saintpaul have been reported in 11 states, and state and federal agencies are looking at roma and round red tomatoes in their traceback investigation.

Robert Whitaker, chief scientific officer for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said during a June 4 conference call that the broad nature of the outbreak and the wide range of dates that victims have fallen ill have complicated the traceback process.

According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 38 victims interviewed in New Mexico and Texas were ill between April 23 and May 27. The Food and Drug Administration is treating the situation as an ongoing outbreak.

Whitaker said it takes victims up to three days to develop symptoms and longer for a pattern to be discovered by public health officials.

The investigation, he said, also has been complicated by the fact that the outbreaks occurred during a transition in production. Production in Mexico was shifting from Sonora to Baja. In the U.S., production in Florida is winding down, while other states are just getting started.

The CDC on June 4 reported that 24 people in Texas and 33 people in New Mexico suffered Salmonella Saintpaul infections with the same genetic fingerprint. Twenty-nine people in nine other states — Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin — also had the same strain. Those states and federal agencies are investigating whether those illnesses are related to tomatoes.

PMA vice president of government relations Kathy Means said during the call that one victim in Illinois and one victim in Utah had traveled to Mexico before falling ill. One victim in Indiana had traveled to Illinois.

The CDC and FDA have advised consumers in Texas and New Mexico not to eat raw round red and roma tomatoes, which have been the focus of the investigation. Retailers, including San Antonio-based H.E. Butt Grocery Co., and Cincinnati-based The Kroger Co. pulled the implicated tomato varieties off the shelves in Texas locations, according to The Houston Chronicle.

“The FDA is very much aware of the market impact,” said Amy Philpott, vice president of marketing and industry relations for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association. “They’re trying to balance that with obligations to public health.”

The FDA said in its advisory that cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes on the vine are safe for consumers to eat.

“That’s something we haven’t seen from them in previous outbreaks,” Philpott said during the conference call. “They made an effort to say what varieties aren’t implicated in the outbreak.”

It was unclear how long the multi-state traceback investigation will last.

“We know the FDA is getting closer,” Means said. “We’re hoping within the next few days we’re going to hear a source, whether it’s a general area like Mexico or Florida or a more specific location.”

Multiple issues complicate salmonella probe
Nicole Tafoya, a microbiologist in the environmental microbiology laboratory at the New Mexico Department of Health’s Scientific Laboratory, tests a tomato sample June 3 during the ongoing salmonella outbreak investigation.

Photo by Celina Phelps, courtesy of The New Mexico Department of Health