(June 4, 6:43 p.m.) New Mexico health officials say Mexico is the likely source of tainted tomatoes in a Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak that has sickened at least 57 people in New Mexico and Texas.

The number of people who suffered from Salmonella Saintpaul in an outbreak linked to fresh tomatoes continued to climb June 4, with almost 90 people in 11 states affected, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Retailers are pulling round red and roma tomatoes off shelves after the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers in Texas and New Mexico against eating those tomatoes raw.

Following the June 3 FDA announcement, at least two retailers, San Antonio-based H.E. Butt Grocery Co., and Cincinnati-based The Kroger Co. pulled implicated tomato varieties off the shelves in Texas locations, according to the Houston Chronicle.

“Ensuring the safety and quality of products sold in our stores is a top priority for HEB,” Winell Herron, HEB Group vice president of public affairs and diversity, told the Austin American-Statesman. “We continue to monitor the situation closely and will return the product to our stores once it is absolutely safe for our customers.”

“It’s really preliminary at this point, but New Mexico gets most of its tomatoes from Mexico at this time of year,” said Deborah Busemeyer, the New Mexico Department of Health’s communication’s director. “Preliminary indications are that the tomatoes are from Mexico.”

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 other people in nine other states also had the same strain. Those states are Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin.

No deaths have been reported in any of the states, said FDA spokesman Sebastian Cianci.

Cianci said it was too early to point blame squarely at Mexico.

“We don’t have traceback information that indicates whether it was domestic product or imported product,” he said.

Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange Inc., said grower-shippers are working with the FDA, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state agencies to bring the investigation to a speedy conclusion. Brown said the outbreaks and ensuing media attention could lead to lower demand and prices.

“The level of public awareness and industry awareness is rising by the hour,” he said June 3 after a conference call with other tomato industry representatives and officials from the federal agencies.

Ed Beckman, president of the Fresno-based California Tomato Farmers cooperative, said growers in that state had not experienced any pushback from customers as of June 3. He pointed out that the state didn’t begin harvesting tomatoes until May 15. The first reported illness was April 23, according to the CDC.

Cianci said June 3 that new cases had been reported as recently as June 1.

“What everyone would like to see is that it’s narrowed down,” Beckman said. “As it is, a number of statements that have been made have been very broad.”

That, Beckman said, would include an advisory from the federal agencies for consumers in Texas and New Mexico not to eat raw red plum, roma or full-sized round tomatoes other than those sold on the vine or grown at home. The CDC said in a news release that the specific variety and the origin of tomatoes are still under investigation, but that “preliminary data suggest that large tomatoes, including roma and red round, are the source.”

Cianci, however, stressed that cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes on the vine had not been implicated.

The first illnesses in New Mexico were reported May 6 and have been linked to tomatoes purchased at Wal-Mart, Basha’s Supermarkets and Lowe’s Markets, Busemeyer said.

“We bought a ton of tomatoes, and we’re in the process of testing them,” she said. “We’re testing all different kinds. We tried to take a wide sample.”

Brown said that narrowing the cause of the outbreak to a certain variety might not be enough to protect grower-shippers.

“Unfortunately when you have the word tomato associated with a health risk, there’s a significant possibility that consumers will back away from the category,” he said. “Even though the FDA will eventually identify a specific portion of the category, the public will react more broadly than the advisory. Our partners in the industry might also react more broadly than the advisory calls for.”

Number of illnesses rising in salmonella outbreak
The New Mexico Department of Health’s Scientific Laboratory tests tomatoes June 3 during the ongoing salmonella outbreak investigation. On June 4, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 33 people in New Mexico, 24 people in Texas and 29 people in nine other states were all sick from the same strain of Salmonella Saintpaul. State and federal agencies are investigating whether those illnesses are related to tomatoes.

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