July 17, 2008 -- It's OK to eat all kinds of tomatoes again, the U.S. government declared Thursday -- lifting its salmonella warning on the summer favorites amid signs that the record outbreak, while not over, may finally be slowing.
Hot peppers still get a caution: The people most at risk of salmonella -- including the elderly and people with weak immune systems -- should avoid fresh jalapenos and serranos, and any dishes that may contain them such as fresh salsa, federal health officials advised.
Investigators still don't know what caused the salmonella outbreak, which now has sickened 1,220 people in 42 states -- the earliest falling ill on April 10 and the latest so far on July 4.
But Thursday's move, coming as the tomato industry estimates its losses at more than $100 million, doesn't mean that tomatoes harvested in the spring are cleared. It just means that the tomatoes in fields and stores today are safe to eat, said Dr. David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration's food safety chief.
"This is not saying that anybody was absolved," Acheson said. But, "as of today, FDA officials believe that consumers may now enjoy all types of fresh tomatoes available without concern of becoming infected with salmonella Saintpaul," the outbreak strain.
Early on, there was good evidence linking certain raw tomatoes to the sick, Acheson stressed. Yet inspectors haven't found the outbreak strain of salmonella Saintpaul on any farms, in suspect areas of south Florida and parts of Mexico, where they've managed to trace tomatoes thought eaten by patients.
As the outbreak stretched into last month, more evidence emerged against fresh jalapenos -- the FDA's hottest lead for now. The agency sent inspectors to a Mexican packing house that supplied peppers linked to a cluster of those illnesses.
Also still on the suspect list is fresh cilantro.
There are signs that the outbreak is slowing, said Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC charted the dates when the ill say they fell sick. Between April and mid-May, illnesses steadily rose. Between May 20 and June 10, the outbreak hit a plateau, with about 33 people a day becoming ill. From June 11 to June 20, that dropped to 19 people a day becoming ill.
Those are the latest available statistics, because it can take two weeks or longer for the CDC to receive confirmation that someone who is sick actually has the implicated salmonella strain.
For every salmonella case the CDC confirms, it estimates there are 30 to 40 more that go undocumented, perhaps because people don't see a doctor or undergo the right testing.
How could two different types of produce be contaminated with what is a rare type of salmonella?
One possibility is that a large farm grew tomatoes in one section and peppers in another, and both went through a common washing station with contaminated water, Acheson said.
"Bear in mind this is not following the trail of a regular old produce outbreak," he said. "There's something else going on here that is a little unusual. You need to think outside the box."
The tomato industry -- which held an unprecedented meeting with FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach and other officials on Monday -- welcomed the announcement.
"We have long been confident that Florida's tomatoes were not associated with the salmonella Saintpaul outbreak," said the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, whose farmers are deciding whether to start planting for a fall tomato harvest. "Tomatoes from Florida's growing regions have been gone from the marketplace for weeks, so they could not have been the source of the contamination."
In Monday's meeting, the industry urged FDA to share more details of its investigation so producers could offer more possibly helpful information. If the sick were more likely to fall ill from chain restaurants than mom-and-pop establishments, for instance, the industry could help point FDA toward different lines of suppliers, explained Kathy Means of the Produce Marketing Association. The FDA promised to consider the request.