As the Food and Drug Administration scrambles to find the source of a 17-state outbreak of salmonellosis linked to raw tomatoes, stores and restaurants nationwide are pulling implicated varieties from shelves and menus.
Sliced tomatoes disappeared from McDonald's mcd sandwiches, and fresh tomato salsa from Taco Bell. Produce distributors scrambled to source tomatoes from the list of states and countries had declared safe, but most stores simply removed the three implicated varieties — Roma, plum and red round — off shelves and menus.
The outbreak of the obscure salmonella saintpaul subtype first appeared in New Mexico and Texas on April 23. By this weekend, it had spread to 16 states, with at least 150 reported illnesses and 23 hospitalizations.
A 67-year-old cancer patient in Texas who health officials said was sickened by salmonella at a Mexican restaurant is believed to be the first death associated with the outbreak, the Associated Press reported. The death of Raul Rivera last week has been officially attributed to his cancer, but Houston health department spokeswoman Kathy Barton told the Houston Chronicle in Tuesday's editions that the salmonella strain was a contributing factor.
Rivera's wife said he was hospitalized after eating pico de gallo, a tomato-based condiment, in late May while celebrating good news about his cancer treatment.
The FDA is advising consumers not to eat any raw tomatoes except cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached and home-grown tomatoes.
That, in turn, led restaurants, food-service distributors and supermarkets to pull tomatoes off their shelves, beginning Saturday, with the list growing longer by the hour Sunday and Monday.
Washing tomatoes can help, but it won't necessarily remove the salmonella bacteria, which sometimes gets inside the fruit.
"Tomatoes are just piling up in the storage rooms, they aren't shipping, people aren't selling them," says Amy Philpott of the United Fresh Produce Association in Washington, D.C. The unsold fruit will likely be sent to landfills, "especially the volumes that we could be looking at in this case."
Supermarkets that have pulled the three tomato types include Albertsons, Ralphs, Safeway swy, Wal-Mart wmt, Vons, Winn-Dixie winn and Whole Foods wfmi.
Sysco syy of Houston the largest food-service distributor in North America, pulled the three implicated tomato types from its distribution chain on Saturday, spokesman Mark Palmer says.
The tomato crisis already may be hurting sales at many of the nation's 945,000 restaurants.
"Tomatoes are one of the top 20 produce items selected by consumers," says Donna Garren, vice president of health and safety at the National Restaurant Association.
"This will hurt sales of items that contain tomatoes."
Salads and sandwiches are looking a bit less colorful — and, perhaps, tasting a tad more bland — at restaurants from McDonald's to Burger King bkc to Cheesecake Factory CAKE.
McDonald's pulled tomatoes from all of its North American restaurants on Friday. "This is a precautionary measure only," says spokeswoman Danya Proud. There have been no tomato-related incidents at McDonald's, she says.
Burger King and Wendy's wen pulled tomatoes on Sunday following the FDA advisory. None of the chains has reported any tomato-caused illness.
Should the tomato issues drag on, Wendy's expects new tomatoes will be available from Southern states within a few weeks, spokesman Denny Lynch says.
Burger King, which places two tomato slices on every Whopper, has not yet seen a decline in Whopper sales, spokeswoman Denise Wilson says. Instead of tomatoes, she says, some patrons ask for more pickles.
"At Burger King, you can always have it your way," she says.
Because Applebee's has a larger number of menu items that contain tomatoes, the casual-dining chain's kitchen is working on alternative recipes for those menu items, says Patrick Lenow, spokesman for parent company IHOP din. The greatest affect is seen on salsa-like pico de gallo, which is served on a number of items, he says.
And at Cheesecake Factory, tomato-less salads may look a bit less vibrant. "One thing tomatoes do give is color," says Howard Gordon, senior vice president of marketing.
The race to find where the contamination is coming from is intense because tomatoes are a perishable item, though less so than consumers might imagine. Under ideal storage conditions, a precisely controlled temperature and humidity, fresh tomatoes can be stored for three weeks after picking before they're not longer saleable, says Philpott.
FDA has issued a list of states and countries that were safe to buy Roma, plum and round red tomatoes from. But the reality is that at this time of year, When the outbreak began on April 23, almost all fresh tomatoes available in the USA would have come from Florida and Mexico, Philpott says. The Florida tomato industry estimates a conservative loss of $40 million from June 1 to June 7. Numbers for Mexico were not immediately available.
Lorene Reed, president of Planet Organics, an organic fruit and produce home delivery service in the San Francisco Bay area, says she hadn't been concerned because the tomatoes she was buying were all organic, and her family had been eating them for weeks.
"My daughter is such a tomato fiend, she'll just grab handfuls to munch like apples." But on Monday she did "the responsible thing" and took Romas, plums and red rounds off her purchasing lists "because everyone is doing it." She says she'll have organic tomatoes back in the boxes delivered to her customers as soon as California tomato fields — on FDA's safe list — start producing in quantity in the next few weeks.