FDA ‘very close' to source of salmonella outbreak

Federal health officials haven't yet traced the source of salmonella-tainted tomatoes, but amid an outcry from farmers they are clearing innocent crops as fast as possible.

“We're getting very close” to identifying the outbreak's source, Dr. David Acheson of the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday.

The outbreak, which has sickened 167 people in 17 states since April, is not over, but it has been two weeks since the last confirmed case of a person falling ill, said Dr. Ian Williams of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State and local health departments still are investigating possibly more recent infections.

No cases have been reported in the Carolinas.

The FDA has warned consumers against eating certain raw tomatoes: red plum, red Roma or round. Grape and cherry tomatoes or tomatoes still attached to the vine aren't linked to the illnesses.

Also ruled safe are tomatoes from over 30 states or nations, including part of major producer Florida. The FDA can rule out as suspects farms and distributors that weren't harvesting or selling when the outbreak began.

State agriculture commissioners from the Southeast, meeting in Kentucky, blasted the FDA for hurting the sale of untainted crops.

“The FDA needs to work with the states to pinpoint the source of the outbreak and eradicate it without unnecessarily harming producers whose products are not affected by the outbreak,” Kentucky's Richie Farmer said.

The FDA defended its consumer-protection warnings.

“We have gone overboard to try to inform consumers which tomatoes were not part of this outbreak,” Acheson said.

It takes a long time to even tell an outbreak has begun, much less solve it. People with food poisoning don't always see a doctor, or have a stool sample analyzed – and when they do, test results can take two to three weeks. Then health officials must spot a pattern.

Officials in New Mexico were first to alert the CDC to a brewing problem May 22. They had a cluster of salmonella cases, including seven of a rare subtype called Salmonella saintpaul. The next day, New Mexico officials posted to a government database called PulseNet the cases' genetic fingerprint, allowing the CDC to check whether this strain of saintpaul was infecting people elsewhere.

It was, in Texas and other states, with the first illness dating back to April 16, Williams said. CDC then began the painstaking questioning of patients to see what they had in common. On May 30, FDA formally joined the investigation, and the next day established a link with tomatoes. Initial warnings were aimed at a few states, until the FDA went national last weekend.