Several grocery stores and fast food restaurants said Monday that they are temporarily pulling sliced tomatoes from their restaurants and shelves in the wake of a mysterious salmonella outbreak that has spread to at least 16 states.
McDonald's, Subway, Burger King and Chipotle all announced plans to pull tomatoes from their restaurants, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said there have been 145 reported cases of salmonellosis across the country, sending 23 people to the hospital. No deaths have been reported so far. The culprit: an uncommon strain of salmonella called Salmonella Saintpaul.
The FDA has advised restaurants and retailers to remove certain types of tomatoes from their shelves and products.
In a statement, McDonald's announced a decision to temporarily stop serving tomatoes in all its restaurants nationwide, saying the step was purely precautionary because the source of the outbreak has not been found.
"The safety and well-being of our customers is a top priority," McDonald's said in the statement. "We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, but food safety and quality at McDonald's will not be compromised."
Subway has also stopped serving tomatoes, and Chipotle has stopped serving its tomato-salsa. Burger King has stopped serving raw, round red tomatoes in the United States, except for some restaurants in California that get tomatoes from growers in places deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration. Burger King said Monday that it has also decided to pull those types of the tomatoes from restaurants in Canada, Puerto Rico and some restaurants in the Caribbean Islands.
"With the tomatoes gone, I hear some people are turning into cucumber and pepper fans," said Subway spokesman Kevin Kane.
Grocery stores including Giant, Safeway, Kroger and Publix confirmed today that they too have pulled certain types of tomatoes off the shelves.
"Our stores are still carrying a quantity of tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes on the vine," said Safeway spokesman Brian Dowling. The grocery chain is also still selling "tomatoes that were sourced in states that have been identified by FDA as not associated with the outbreak."
Supermarkets are temporarily not selling anything on the FDA caution list, but are selling tomatoes still considered safe by the FDA. Cherry and grape tomatoes, and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached are not affected by the outbreak.
The FDA expanded its warning about tomatoes this weekend, telling consumers to avoid certain types of raw, red tomatoes. The warning was initially contained to just New Mexico and Texas, but was broadened nationwide Saturday.
Fast food chains say their products are safe and emphasize that there is not a direct link between their tomatoes and the outbreak. At Burger King, senior analyst in communications Denise T. Wilson said food safety is "non-negotiable."
The specific types of tomatoes include raw red Roma, red plum and red round tomatoes. Any products containing these types of tomatoes should also be avoided, the FDA has advised.
The FDA does not know exactly where the contamination started, but says it is working diligently to "quickly determine the source of the tomatoes associated with the outbreak."
Salmonellosis can cause fever, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain in healthy adults. But in children and the elderly, or people with weak immune systems, it can be fatal.
The FDA recommends that people who experience these symptoms after eating these flagged tomatoes contact a health care professional immediately.
States that have reported cases of salmonella include Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spokeswoman Lola Russell said most people became ill between April 16 and May 27.
"Salmonella Saint-Paul is a rare strain, but the fact that there are 23 hospitalizations out of 73 persons interviewed suggests that it may be more severe, causing more severe illnesses," she said on Monday.