Get Answers to Questions About the Salmonella Outbreak Tied to Tomatoes
Health officials are investigating the source of the salmonella outbreak linked to certain types of tomatoes from certain sources. Meanwhile, the FDA says the following types of tomatoes from any source are fine to eat and have not been associated with the outbreak:
Tomatoes sold with the vine still attached
Here are 16 questions and answers about salmonella, symptoms of salmonella infection, and how to avoid salmonella in the first place.
What is salmonella?
Salmonella are bacteria that can live in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals. There are many strains of salmonella; the tomato outbreak involves an uncommon strain called Salmonella Saintpaul.
What are symptoms of salmonella infection?
Salmonella infection (salmonellosis) can cause diarrhea (which may be bloody), fever, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Symptoms typically start 12-72 hours after infection.
Who's at risk?
Anyone can get salmonella. Most cases aren't severe. Serious and potentially fatal cases are more likely in young children, frail or elderly people, and people with weak immune systems. Those cases can happen when salmonella infection spreads from the intestines to the blood and other parts of the body.
For the latest news on the number of cases in the Salmonella Saintpaul oubtreak, visit the CDC's web site.
Will rinsing fruits and vegetables get rid of salmonella?
Rinsing tainted fruits and vegetables probably won't get rid of salmonella, according to the FDA. In general, it's important to handle foods safely. That generally means rinsing raw, whole fruits and vegetables under running water and, if you choose, scrubbing them with a small vegetable brush to remove surface dirt. It also means that when you cook foods, you cook them thoroughly.
What if I wash fruits and vegetables with a detergent, too?
The FDA doesn't recommend using any kind of detergent to wash fresh produce, because "it is not yet known if their residues are harmful to humans," states the FDA's web site.
Does cooking kill salmonella?
Thorough cooking can kill salmonella. But when health officials warn people not to eat potentially contaminated food, or when a food is recalled because of salmonella risk, that means don't eat that food, cooked or not, rinsed or not. The stakes are too high.
Are all plum, Roma, and round red tomatoes unsafe?
No. Because some areas had not harvested or distributed its tomatoes when the outbreak began, the FDA has declared tomatoes from these areas to be safe.
Raw red plum, raw red Roma, or raw round red tomatoes grown and harvested from the following areas are fine to eat and have not been tied to the outbreak:
Florida from the counties of Jackson, Gadsden, Leon, Jefferson, Madison, Suwannee, Hamilton, Hillsborough, Polk, Manatee, Hardee, DeSoto, Sarasota, Highlands, Pasco, Sumter, Citrus, Hernando, and Charlotte
Baja California (Norte), Mexico
The FDA has been updating this list frequently. For the latest list, visit the FDA's web site.
What are the CDC and the FDA doing to track the outbreak?
On May 23, just before the start of the Memorial Day weekend, New Mexico health authorities first realized there was an outbreak. That's when they discovered that a cluster of salmonella cases had been caused by a salmonella strain with an unusual genetic fingerprint.
The CDC and the FDA soon became involved. Why haven't they figured out where the tainted tomatoes came from?
David Acheson, MD, FDA assistant commissioner for food protection, says tracing raw tomatoes back to their source isn't as easy as tracing a can of tomatoes labeled with a bar code.
"When someone gets sick, we ask them where they bought the tomatoes, and they say it was a local supermarket," Acheson explained in a news conference. "We ask the supermarket where they got them, and they say it's one of several suppliers. Each supplier tells us they get tomatoes from several distributors. The distributors say they came from several growers. So this multiplies out into a fan of information that has to be sorted through to see where the links cross over."
The CDC and FDA have been able to rule out certain tomato-growing regions. But they have not yet been able to identify the source of the current outbreak.
"The critical question is, Where did these tomatoes come from? We are not quite there yet," Acheson said. "We are getting very close, but today we do not know exactly where they did come from."
Besides tomatoes, what other foods may contain salmonella?
Any raw food of animal origin -- such as meat, poultry, milk and dairy products, eggs, and seafood -- and some fruits and vegetables may carry salmonella bacteria, states the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection web site, adding that salmonella bacteria can contaminate other foods that come in contact with raw meat and poultry. That's why thorough cooking and cleanliness are so important in the kitchen.
What can I do to prevent salmonella infection from tomatoes?
If you have any of the suspect tomatoes, get rid of them. Here are the FDA's tips for handling tomatoes -- and other fruits and vegetables, in general -- to prevent food poisoning:
Wash hands with soap and warm water before handling tomatoes.
Wash each tomato thoroughly under running water. Don't wash tomatoes in a tub or sink filled with water.
When finished washing a tomato, cut out the scar where the stem was, and throw it away.
Never cut a fresh tomato until it has been thoroughly washed.
Cut the tomato on a clean cutting board, using clean utensils. Don't let the tomato come in contact with other raw foods or the surfaces they have touched. Wash cutting boards and utensils in between each different type of food that is cut.
Refrigerate fresh, cut tomatoes (or products made from them, such as salsa) at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or less if they're not eaten within two hours.
Wash hands with soap and warm water after preparing the tomatoes.
Those basic principles of food safety and cleanliness go for other types of food, too. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has this advice:
Consider using paper towels to clean kitchen surfaces. If you use cloth towels, wash them often in the hot cycle of your washing machine.
Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from other foods in your grocery shopping cart and in your refrigerator.
If possible, use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
Always wash cutting boards, dishes, countertops, and utensils with hot soapy water after they come in contact with raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, or seafood.
Cook foods thoroughly and refrigerate them promptly.
Don't thaw foods at room temperature.
Use a clean food thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat, poultry, casseroles, and other foods.
How does salmonella spread?
Salmonella can pass from human or animal feces to soil, fruits, vegetables, water, or other surfaces. People usually get salmonella by eating contaminated foods. However, salmonella can also spread through contact with pet feces or by handling contaminated pet food.
Reptiles are particularly likely to harbor salmonella bacteria, and chicks and ducklings can carry them too, notes the CDC. The U.S. government bans the sale of small pet turtles because of salmonella risk.
How common is salmonella infection?
Salmonella is commonly found in birds, in reptiles, in chickens, and in humans. There are more than 2,000 types of salmonella.
Every year, the CDC gets reports of about 40,000 cases of salmonella illnesses. The actual number of cases may be higher because not all cases get reported to the CDC. In fact, the CDC estimates that for every reported case, 38 cases go unreported.
An estimated 400 people per year die of acute salmonella infection, according to the CDC.
But the St. Paul salmonella strain is rare in humans. Last year, there were 400 reported cases. And last year there were only 25 cases of infection with the specific Saintpaul subtype causing the current outbreak.
Are salmonella cases on the rise?
Not according to the CDC's preliminary food safety data for 2007, which show no significant change from 2004-2007 in the incidence of salmonella infection reported to the CDC. But the salmonella incidence rate is more than twice as high as the government's goal for 2010, so the CDC says "new approaches" are needed to curb salmonella infection.
How is salmonella infection diagnosed?
By a stool test.
How is salmonella infection treated?
Most people don't require treatment other than drinking plenty of fluids. People with severe diarrhea may require rehydration with intravenous fluids. Antibiotics are usually not used unless the salmonella infection has spread beyond the intestines.
What about other outbreaks of food poisoning?
The salmonella outbreak in tomatoes is the major national food safety issue at the moment. Other outbreaks you probably heard about in recent years include the 2006 E. coli outbreak in fresh spinach, the 2007 salmonella outbreak in Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter, the 2007 Veggie Booty recall because of salmonella risk, the 2007 recall of certain Banquet or generic store-brand turkey or chicken pot pies linked to a salmonella outbreak, and the 2007 recall by Topps Meat Co. of more than 21 million pounds of frozen ground beef products because of E. coli risk.