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Salmonella scare takes tomatoes off some menus

POSTED: June 20, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Got a craving for fresh tomatoes?

Whether you can find any today depends on where you decide to eat or shop. Hall County restaurants and supermarkets have had differing responses to a federal advisory on tomato safety.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are still trying to figure out why at least 145 people nationwide have been sickened by an uncommon strain of salmonella called Saintpaul.

Officials know the foodborne illness is linked to tomatoes, but they haven’t pinpointed exactly which kinds or where they come from.

Instead, the FDA has named several states, including Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas, which are not believed to be associated with the outbreak.

The agency also believes that only certain varieties of raw tomatoes may be contaminated. These include round red, Roma and red plum.

The FDA says cherry and grape tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached are safe to eat. Other varieties also may be safe if they were grown in one of the "approved" states.

Some retailers and restaurateurs are following the FDA’s recommendations to the letter. Others are voluntarily broadening the scope of the recall.

On Saturday, local Publix supermarkets began pulling several types of organic, Roma and premium tomatoes off the shelf, regardless of where they were grown.

"It’s not based on geography," said Brenda Reid, spokeswoman for Publix stores in Georgia. "We’ve chosen to pull them all, as a safety precaution."

This early in the summer, Florida is still the main source for fresh tomatoes in many markets, she said. Unfortunately, Florida is one of the states associated with the salmonella outbreak.

"The timing is not good," Reid said. "We’re heavy into the growing season in Florida."

Local Kroger stores also have decided to stop selling round red, Roma and plum tomatoes, no matter where they were grown.

"It’s a precautionary measure for the safety of our customers, because the FDA still has not determined the source of the contamination," said Glynn Jenkins, spokesman for Kroger’s Atlanta division.

He said Kroger stores throughout the Southeast began removing the FDA-cited varieties of tomatoes on Sunday morning and finished the task Monday morning. Signage was placed in produce departments to explain why the tomatoes weren’t available.

Ingles supermarkets are taking a different approach from Publix and Kroger. Ingles spokesman Ron Freeman said all varieties of tomatoes grown in the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee are still considered safe by the FDA, so Ingles is not removing tomatoes if they are verified to have been grown in those states.

"We are also carrying cherry tomatoes and tomatoes sold with the vine attached from all origins, as those products are not part of the FDA investigation," Freeman said.

At IGA Clermont, an independently owned grocery in North Hall, manager Shawn Wellborn said the store has not pulled any tomatoes off the shelf.

"Most of the tomatoes we carry are hothouse and cherry, and we haven’t heard anything from our warehouse in North Carolina (about a recall)," he said.

Many restaurants also are relying on their produce suppliers for guidance.

"Our produce company told us that we’re not affected, that we don’t use the types of tomatoes that were named in the recall," said Josh Forshee, manager of Barberito’s Southwest Grill in Oakwood.

But some restaurants are shying away from even the suggestion of contamination, perhaps remembering previous national outbreaks of illnesses linked to foods such spinach and ground beef.

"We’re not serving any fresh tomatoes at all right now," said Bart Dyer, manager of the Longhorn Steakhouse on Browns Bridge Road. "Our corporate office has told us to stop using any type of tomatoes until the FDA has determined that they’re all safe."

Of course, it’s easier to give up tomatoes if your cuisine doesn’t depend on the juicy red fruit. Locally owned Pasquale’s on Riverside Drive in Gainesville specializes in Italian food. But manager Boma Pennebaker said customers will enjoy the same menu items they always have.

"We use a tomato sauce that is fresh-packed in July and August when the tomatoes are at their peak of flavor," he said. "The only things we use fresh, regular-size tomatoes for are sandwiches, so we’ve pulled those. We’ve still got the grape and cherry tomatoes in the salad bar."

Pennebaker said he decided to stop using the round red tomatoes Sunday night, based on news reports.

"We get ours from local growers, but we pulled them anyway," he said. "We wanted to make 100 percent sure they were safe."



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