LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - U.S. health officials said on Wednesday they are still receiving reports of people falling ill from eating Salmonella-tainted tomatoes and that they now have 167 reported cases from 17 states.
Representatives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said they are continuing to search for the source of the Salmonella outbreak, which has hit New Mexico and Texas the hardest.
Officials said the earliest reported onset of illness was on April 16 and that the latest was May 27. Of the 167 cases reported, 23 have resulted in hospitalization.
Health officials in Texas investigated the death of a man who had been infected with Salmonella Saintpaul but ruled that the cause of death was cancer, according to the Houston Department of Health and Human Services.
Ian Williams, chief of the CDC’s OutbreakNet Team, said one of the interesting features about the scare was that it has not been associated with any specific restaurants or grocery stores.
The outbreak — linked to raw plum, Roma and round tomatoes — has hit the $1.28 billion U.S. tomato market hard.
Restaurants and grocery stores have yanked raw tomatoes from menus and store shelves and consumers have sworn off the fruit until the problem is pinpointed.
The FDA said on Tuesday that Northern Florida, which did not yet have tomatoes widely available for consumption at the time people fell ill, had been added to its list of states and countries whose tomatoes were not linked to the outbreak.
States already on that list include Texas and California, the second-largest U.S. tomato producer. (The full FDA list of "safe" producers is available here: here)
Florida is the largest U.S. tomato grower, producing an annual crop valued at between $500 million to $700 million.
Tomatoes from the central region of Florida remain under investigation, David Acheson, FDA’s associate commissioner for food protection, said on a conference call with journalists.
FDA also has not cleared Mexico, which produces 84 percent of the tomatoes imported by the United States.
Salmonella bacteria are frequently responsible for food-borne illnesses. Symptoms of infection include fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain and generally appear within 12 to 72 hours of eating tainted food.
Infants, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are more likely than others to develop severe illness. The current outbreak is caused by an uncommon type of bacteria known as Salmonella Saintpaul.
Salmonella infections commonly result from eating food that has been contaminated by animal feces. Human food handlers can contaminate food by failing to wash their hands after going to the bathroom.
Since 1990, there have been at least 13 multi-state Salmonella outbreaks linked to different types of tomatoes, according to the CDC’s Williams.
Consumers have complained that there seem to be more problems with U.S. food safety than in the past — something U.S. health officials dispute.
“It is not getting worse,” said Acheson, who said health officials were, over the years, able to identify outbreaks sooner and communicate them more efficiently to the public.
David Henkes, a vice president at food industry research and consulting company Technomic, said food safety is a perennial issue in the United States.
“It does seem that these things crop every so often. It’s never good news for the industry,” said Henkes, who added that regulators are working with limited resources.
“Government agencies are underfunded. It’s very difficult for them to monitor every single shipment in every single crop. Henkes said.
Additional reporting by Bobbi Rebell in New York, editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Leslie Gevirtz, Richard Chang