Officials widening salmonella probe

Health officials are expanding their investigation beyond tomatoes and into other produce as they search for the source of a salmonella outbreak that now has sickened 869 people over nearly three months.

As reports of victims continue to grow across 36 states, long after many tomato producers finished harvesting, officials at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters Tuesday that they were recruiting more laboratories to help look deeper into the matter. They refused to specify what other produce they were looking at.

The most recent onset of infection was June 20, said Dr. Robert Tauxe of the CDC, and at least 179 people became ill June 1 or later.

But health officials are staying tight-lipped about where the victims are from and what they ate, saying only that they were examining several clusters of cases and that more than half of the reported cases have been in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Tomatoes are still the lead suspect, as case studies have shown that 80 percent of victims reported eating the fruit, Tauxe said.

“Tomatoes aren't off the hook,” said Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods for the FDA.

But the culprit's trail is convoluted and the pace of tracking “has been frustratingly slow,” Acheson said.

Investigators are combing through the entire distribution chain for tomatoes and are weighing multiple scenarios, including a shared water source at one or more farms or a common packing site, that could have contaminated the fruit.

Health officials are also not ruling out a possible cross-contamination scenario, where infected tomatoes came in contact with other produce.

Acheson also chided the produce business for its paper-based records, saying that there is a “critical need for the industry to modernize its practices.”

In recent weeks, tomato growers have blasted the FDA for the slow investigation, blaming the agency for what they say are millions of dollars lost to plunging sales and destroyed tomatoes.

On Friday, the Western Growers Association urged the House Committee on Agriculture to probe the FDA's response to the outbreak, with chief executive Tom Nassif saying in a statement that “the collateral damage inflicted on thousands of innocent producers in this country by FDA blanket ‘advisories,' such as with spinach and tomatoes, cannot go unchallenged.”