FDA warns to avoid three varieties, except those grown in Georgia, other safe sourcesOne of summer's greatest pleasures, a juicy tomato slice, has fallen victim to a food-borne illness outbreak that has sickened at least 167 people.
Restaurants and supermarkets across the country are pulling some of the most popular varieties of tomatoes off sandwiches, salads, tacos and shelves after a federal agency warned over the weekend that they could be contaminated with salmonella bacteria.
Chick-fil-A and McDonald's have dropped tomato slices from their sandwiches. Olive Garden has taken bruschetta and pasta pomodoro, both made with raw tomatoes, off the menu. Fresh salsas are off the prepared food shelves at Whole Foods Market. McDonald's, Wal-Mart, Burger King, Kroger, Outback Steakhouse, Winn-Dixie and Taco Bell have also pulled tomatoes.
An unusual strain of the bacteria, called salmonella saintpaul, has sickened people in at least 17 states since April 16. Twenty-three have been hospitalized. Most of the illnesses have been in Texas, New Mexico and much of the West. No cases have been reported in Georgia.
While federal disease detectives search for the source, they're advising consumers not to eat round red tomatoes, Roma tomatoes and red plum tomatoes (oblong varieties) unless they come from a short list of states or countries that have been cleared so far in the outbreak.
Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes sold on the vine have not been linked to the illnesses, the FDA says. Neither have homegrown tomatoes.
Margie Kirkland of Canton had planned to make fresh mango salsa with Roma tomatoes this week. Now, she's looking for substitutes.
"I'm definitely going to be hurting," she said Monday, while grocery shopping in Marietta. "I guess I'll be putting more mangoes in my salsa."
Better safe than sorry
Although the FDA advisory cleared tomatoes from 15 growing regions, including Georgia, many restaurants and supermarkets are choosing to drop all round red tomatoes, plum and Roma tomatoes regardless of where they were grown.
"Our biggest concern is consumer safety," said Glynn Jenkins, a spokesman for Kroger.
The supermarket chain has removed all three kinds of tomatoes from its shelves, salad bars, deli sandwiches and prepared kebabs, Jenkins said.
Chick-fil-A continues to serve grape tomatoes on its salads, and has switched to them for its Cool Wraps sandwiches. The College Park-based restaurant chain has dropped all round red tomatoes, said Don Perry, vice president of public relations.
Because tomatoes from various growing regions might get mingled during distribution and shipping, Chick-fil-A decided to play it safe, he said.
"It's just not worth taking the risk," Perry said.
Arby's Restaurant Group, also based in metro Atlanta, has dropped all types of raw tomatoes from its menu. So has Darden Restaurants, one of the nation's largest restaurant operators with brands including LongHorn Steakhouse, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Seasons 52, Capital Grille and Bahama Breeze.
Darden restaurants continue to serve cooked tomatoes in items like marinara sauces, which have not been linked to the outbreak, said spokesman Rich Jeffers. Cooking kills salmonella bacteria.
Darden, which owns 1,700 restaurants under its various brands, is looking into options for replacing raw tomatoes, Jeffers said.
For now, though, many restaurants and supermarkets are waiting on word from federal authorities, hoping they'll pinpoint a source before the peak summer tomato season.
The FDA has cleared tomatoes from these regions, saying they are not associated with the outbreak: Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Belgium, Canada, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel, The Netherlands and Puerto Rico.
Symptoms of salmonella infection include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramping, and typically show up within 12 to 72 hours of infection.
Illness usually lasts four to seven days. Serious complications are more likely in infants, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.
Past tomato-linked outbreaks
The outbreak is the latest in a string of salmonella infections linked to raw tomatoes. In the past decade, raw or fresh-cut tomatoes have been linked to 12 outbreaks of food-borne illness that sickened 1,840 people, according to the FDA.
The agency started working with growers in Florida and Virginia last year to tighten agricultural practices to reduce the risk of illness. Many of the earlier outbreaks were tied to tomatoes grown in Florida and the eastern shore of Virginia.
Roma and plum tomatoes are commonly used for sauces and salsas, and show up in many prepared foods that aren't cooked before serving. Chopped round red tomatoes and sauce tomatoes are used in fresh salsa, seven-layer dip, guacamole, taco fillings, some uncooked pasta sauces, on sandwiches and subs, and in pico de gallo.
Kirkland, considering the prospect of a summer with scarce and expensive tomatoes, hopes the FDA tracks down the source of the illnesses soon. She's planning on checking out local farmers markets, since Georgia tomatoes have been cleared.
"People can't live without tomatoes," she said.