Outbreak halts tomato sales

McDonald's, Wal-Mart and other U.S. chains have halted sales of some raw tomatoes as federal health officials work to trace the source of a multistate salmonella food poisoning outbreak.

Burger King, Outback Steakhouse and Taco Bell were among other restaurants voluntarily withdrawing tomatoes from their menus, following federal recommendations that consumers avoid red plum, red Roma or round red tomatoes unless they were grown in certain states and countries. Stores and restaurants in the Charlotte area said they, too, are removing tomatoes from menus and produce sections.

McDonald's Corp., the world's largest hamburger chain, has stopped serving sliced tomatoes on its sandwiches as a precaution until the source of the bacterial infection is known, according to a statement Monday from spokeswoman Danya Proud. McDonald's will continue serving grape tomatoes in its salads because no problems have been linked to that variety, she said.

The source of the tomatoes responsible for the illnesses in at least 16 states has not been pinpointed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said at least 23 people have been hospitalized, and no deaths have been reported.

At Chipotle Mexican Grill on South Boulevard, mild corn salsa has replaced tomato salsa, said employee Peter Blank. The restaurant hasn't used raw tomatoes or received new shipments since Thursday.

At Harris Teeter, the Matthews-based supermarket chain, officials began removing the tomatoes in question from all stores Monday, spokeswoman Catherine Reuhl said in an e-mail. Tomatoes from areas deemed safe by the FDA were scheduled to be back in stores Tuesday, she said.

Not all restaurants have been affected. At Fuel Pizza, which uses local produce, tomatoes are still on the menu, delivery manager David Mazzone said.

Frank Suddreth, manager of the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, said he hasn't heard concerns from growers or consumers, largely because tomato season isn't in full swing yet, and because most of the market's produce comes from local farmers.

The Food and Drug Administration warned consumers in New Mexico and Texas as early as June 3 about the outbreak. The agency expanded its warning during the weekend and chains began voluntarily removing many red plum, red Roma and round red tomatoes from their shelves in response.

Tomatoes grown in the Carolinas are not thought to be a source of the illnesses.

Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the largest grocery seller in the United States, repeated a statement Monday that some tomatoes had been removed from its shelves. Wal-Mart initially announced the action Thursday.

Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie Stores Inc., which operates 521 stores in five southern states, also stopped selling tomatoes involved in the FDA warning.

Agency spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said the agency hopes to pinpoint the source of the outbreak as quickly as possible.

Rawlings said the FDA's “traceback” investigations typically look at similarities in illnesses reported to the CDC by state health officials. Investigators work backward to find the source of the contaminated product.

Salmonella is a bacteria that lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals. The bacteria are usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal feces.

Most infected people suffer fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps starting 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness tends to last four to seven days.

Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached and homegrown tomatoes are likely not the source of the outbreak, federal officials said.

Still, some N.C. farmers are worried that the scare will spark lingering concerns, even about locally grown crops, said Brian Long, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“It's a situation we're watching very closely,” he said. “I know we have heard from growers in North Carolina who are concerned about how it will affect them. … What we are hoping is that this could end up being an opportunity for them, with people looking at buying tomatoes closer to home. It could end up being positive for them.” Staff writer Kirsten Valle contributed.