Tainted tomatoes could have come from Mexico
Saira Peesker, CTV.ca News Staff
Published Tuesday, June 10, 2008 9:18PM EDT
The tomatoes that have infected more than 167 Americans with a rare strain of salmonella probably came from Mexico, according to a representative from the New Mexico Department of Health.
A preliminary inquiry into salmonella illnesses in the state shows patients bought tomatoes from stores supplied by growers south of the U.S. border, said Deborah Busemeyer, communications director for the New Mexico health department.
"(Salmonella) patients in New Mexico bought tomatoes that came from Mexico," she told CTV.ca in a phone interview on Tuesday. "We saw a link between certain stores (and the people getting sick)."
New Mexico has seen 62 confirmed cases of the "Saintpaul" bacteria, more than most of the other 15 states where the strain has surfaced. Many more patients have fallen ill, although lab tests to confirm presence of salmonella are still pending.
While the first reported cases began in mid-April, New Mexico has seen "an increase of cases almost every day," Busemeyer said.
One third of the winter tomatoes shipped to the United States come from Mexico.
The Mexican embassy in the United States said Tuesday that the comments are "pure speculation." In an email sent to CTV.ca, spokesperson Ricardo Alday said Mexico is co-operating with the U.S. authorities investigating the problem and that the FDA has not determined that Mexican tomatoes are responsible.
"Even if it were to be determined that Mexican produce (is) the origin of any of these cases, the FDA has to determine if the problem came from the raw product itself or was acquired during the transportation, distribution, storage or cooking processes," Alday said.
"Mexico is absolutely committed to food safety and will keep doing everything at its reach to guarantee that all the relevant domestic and international laws are observed and complied with."
On Tuesday, a major Mexican tomato exporter stopped shipping to the United States pending the investigation's results.
The Sinaloa state Tomato Growers Association -- which ships almost half of Mexican tomatoes that come to Canada and the U.S. -- said the stoppage was just a precaution and that the tomatoes will be sold to domestic markets instead.
The American Food and Drug Administration issued a warning last weekend that consumers should avoid Roma, plum and red round tomatoes until the source of the outbreak is confirmed. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency quickly followed suit.
However, as of Tuesday, no Saintpaul-related illness had been discovered in Canada, CFIA spokesperson Alain Charette told CTV.ca.
According to the FDA, it is safe to eat tomatoes from Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Belgium, Canada, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel, Netherlands and Puerto Rico.
The FDA has not released details of its own investigation into the tomatoes and has not verified the results of New Mexico's preliminary inquiry.
Many Canadian restaurants have pulled tomatoes from their menu items as a precautionary measure. Some have blamed supply problems that have ensued from the scare.
Similar actions in the United States are hurting tomato growers, who have lost much of the restaurant market. In Canada, they're having the opposite effect -- only one per cent of Canadian tomatoes are sold to the food service industry, said Kristen Callow, the general manager of Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers.
The FDA has ruled out Canada as a source of the bacteria, so demand for Canadian tomatoes could increase, Callow told CTV.ca on Tuesday.
Grocery stores have continued to support homegrown produce despite the scare, she added.
The Saintpaul salmonella strain is not resistant to antibiotics. The FDA has not confirmed any deaths related to the outbreak.