Mysterious Salmonella Outbreak Had Innocent Victims: Tomatoes

We like to share news of product, food, and vehicle recalls, because keeping our readers free from fire, illness, and injury is very important to us. However, every recall and warning of potentially contaminated food has hidden victims. Sometimes those victims are vegetables left to rot in the fields, and the farmers who were supposed to sell them.

Back in 2008, there was an outbreak of salmonellosis across the country. More than a 1,200 people were proven to be infected with this particular strain of Salmonella. That means that many more may have also been infected but showed no symptoms, or they weren’t sick enough to visit a doctor or a hospital to have samples taken. At least 286 people were hospitalized with this strain, and two people may have died from it.

At the time, the outbreak was confusing for investigators and frightening to the public because authorities couldn’t figure out which food was the culprit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eventually concluded that the outbreak may have been caused by jalapeño and serrano peppers grown in Mexico, but the first suspects were tomatoes.

The federal Food and Drug Administration put out a warning to Americans in certain states to avoid eating some kinds of tomatoes raw. Not surprisingly, tomato sales nationwide fell. Farmers whose tomatoes were set to ripen just as that warning was issued suddenly had nowhere to sell them. Bloomberg Businessweek interviewed one farmer who let 80% of his crop rot, and was part of a lawsuit against the federal government that a judge recently dismissed. Yes, this outbreak happened six years ago, and the dismissal came just a few weeks ago.

“I couldn’t even give [the tomatoes] away,” the farmer in Florida told Businessweek. Meanwhile, inspectors from the FDA visited his farm and took samples, but found no signs of contamination. Eventually, the FDA lifted the tomato warning, but that came well after many farmers’ entire crop rotted on the vine.

The culprit was peppers from Mexico. Maybe. They think. All the authorities know is that people stopped coming down with salmonellosis from this strain, and they declared the outbreak to be over.

It’s not over for the tomato farmers, though: they plan to appeal their lawsuit.

Rotten Tomatoes: Farmers Pay the Price for a False Food-Safety Warning [Bloomberg Businessweek]
Multistate Outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul Infections Linked to Raw Produce (Final Update) [CDC]

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