FDA heads to Mexico and Florida in salmonella case

There may be a break in the salmonella case. Food and Drug Administration inspectors headed for farms in Florida and Mexico on Friday, as new clues emerge to the possible source of salmonella-tainted tomatoes that have sickened 552 people.

The FDA wouldn't say where in Florida and Mexico the hunt is centering. But officials stressed that the clues don't necessarily mean that a particular farm will turn out to be the source.

Investigators will pay special attention to big packing houses or distribution warehouses that handle tomatoes from many farms and where contamination could be spread, leading to what now appears to be the nation's largest-ever salmonella outbreak from tomatoes.

“It does not mean definitively the contamination occurred on a farm in Mexico or on a farm in Florida,” said Dr. David Acheson, FDA's food safety chief.

The latest victim got sick on June 10, meaning the outbreak may not be over. And Texas is clearly its center, with a doubling of known cases from 131 confirmed earlier in the week to 265 as of Friday.

“These 552 may actually represent several thousand illnesses in the United States,” cautioned Dr. Ian Williams of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Previous research shows that for every case of salmonella reported to the government, 30 or more people get sick but don't see a doctor or undergo confirmatory testing, he noted.

The FDA already had said that central and southern Florida and parts of Mexico were suspects because they supplied the vast majority of tomatoes sold when the outbreak began in April. (Tomatoes currently being harvested in north Florida and Baja Mexico have been cleared as safe to eat.)