Salmonella in tomatoes cause some to worry

According to the Food and Drug Administration, 277 people have been infected with the diease because of tomatoes.

Some say “tomato,” some say “tomahto,” but the buzzword surrounding everyone’s favorite round, red fruit has recently been something a little more sinister – salmonella.

Since early June, the Food and Drug Administration has been attempting to pinpoint where an outbreak of the virus in tomatoes originated.

As of Tuesday, the FDA had cleared tomatoes produced in 39 states, including Minnesota, as salmonella-free.

But some food suppliers – from McDonald’s to University Dining Services – still pulled tomatoes from their menu to prevent the spread of the disease.

Salmonella is bacteria generally associated with food animals, such as chicken, University professor of environmental health sciences Craig Hedberg said.

Salmonella can cause diarrhea or fever in humans. It’s rarely fatal, he said, but can be life-threatening for the elderly or for young children.

Tomato salmonella outbreaks are common, Hedberg said, happening almost yearly for at least a decade. This time, however, Hedberg said the response has been more severe because the origins are unknown.

“When there’s a contaminated food source causing illness in the marketplace,” he said, “we want to identify what that is, and make sure that people are protected from ongoing exposure to it.”

Hedberg said about 1.4 million people are infected with salmonella each year. The FDA has reported 277 cases associated with tomatoes during this outbreak, as of Tuesday.

When a food is recalled, University Dining Services removes the product, Associate Director of UDS Karen DeVet said.

In most cases, the University is informed of food recalls from either Aramark , which operates food service at the University, or through Sysco Minnesota , the main food provider for the University.

“This was a little bit more confusing because there were certain products that were deemed to be OK and certain products that weren’t,” DeVet said.

As more tomato-supplying states were cleared by the FDA, food providers began putting tomatoes back on their menu.

The University has resumed supplying tomatoes, DeVet said. They took the safe route by initially pulling tomatoes off the menus, she said.

“We made the decision, based on consumer confidence, to wait until the ban had been lifted,” she said.

Hedberg said such an approach – pulling tomatoes completely off the menu – is “overly conservative.”

“By the time that we identify that there is an outbreak, and that outbreak is due to tomatoes, the tomatoes have almost always gone through the marketplace,” he said.

Some restaurants, like Downtime Bar and Grill in Dinkytown, kept providing tomatoes through the recalls.

Downtime manager Bob Patrick said their supplier never told them to be wary of the salmonella, so it has been business as usual.

Annie’s Parlor in Dinkytown did take tomatoes off their sandwiches and burgers, general manager Barbara Thompson said.

Annie’s tomato ban has now been lifted, but Thompson said it didn’t affect the restaurant’s business.

“It wasn’t like they were a vital part of our menu,” she said. “Our business is crazy busy.”