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SPECIAL EDITION:
Tomato/Salmonella Outbreak
Insights and Analysis

New Mexico Health Department
Takes Lead In Tomato/Salmonella
Outbreak Information

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 6, 2008

We included an Alert issued by the New Mexico Department of Health in our piece, Salmonella and Tomatoes Linked in New Mexico, and now we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to see what else we could learn from New Mexico.

Deborah Busemeyer
spokesperson
New Mexico Department of Health
Santa Fe, New Mexico

A: As of June 5, 48 patients have been confirmed sick with salmonella Saintpaul. Of those, 36 contain the same fingerprint match to the strain of the outbreak. The other 12 are still being tested. The outbreak now covers 11 counties.

Q: What is the most recent date that someone reported their illness started? Are these increasing numbers of people infected (June 4 release, May 31 release) based on new patients that are just reporting becoming ill in the last few days?

A: The latest onset of illness is May 27. These are people, whose lab results were confirmed to be matches with the outbreak strain. There is always a lag time between self-reporting and conclusive results. I don’t know how many cases are pending.

Q: The New Mexico Department of Health’s latest release dated June 4, states, “Many grocery stores in New Mexico have been stocking tomatoes that originate in Mexico. The Department of Health and federal agencies are still investigating the source of the outbreak.” Do you have any more information to substantiate this inference that the tomatoes in the outbreak come from Mexico?

A: The stores in New Mexico implicated in the outbreak are telling us that at this time of year tomatoes they have been stocking are coming from Mexico. We are not making any definitive conclusions. The source is still under investigation.

Q: In your May 31 release, the New Mexico Department of Health recommends that individuals and restaurants that bought tomatoes from Wal-Mart in Las Cruces or Farmington, Lowe’s in Las Cruces, or Bashas’ in Crownpoint since May 3 should not eat them uncooked. Since this time, have any more retailers or chain locations been added?

A: No. The stores linked to the outbreak are still limited to those listed. That could change. We’re still in the process of interviewing patients. Some patients were hospitalized, making it more difficult to gather information. We’re advising people to follow federal recommendations because we haven’t ruled out that other stores may be involved. And FDA is giving the public information on how to protect themselves, and we want the public to get consistent information.

Q: Your Health Secretary Dr. Alfredo Vigil is quoted saying, “It is important to emphasize that no locally grown tomatoes from New Mexico have been implicated in this outbreak.” FDA and CDC are advising all consumers in New Mexico and Texas to limit their tomato consumption to tomatoes that have not been implicated in the outbreak. By including that statement in your release, are you suggesting to consumers that it is OK to eat locally grown tomatoes, even if they are raw Roma, plum or red round tomatoes?

A: There are many farmers in New Mexico growing conventional and organic tomatoes to sell or keep for their own supply. They have not been implicated. But everything is couched under the premise that this is an ongoing investigation. No information we have would lead us to believe locally grown tomatoes in New Mexico are a problem.

Deborah Busemeyer has won some notice as a vaccine advocate, and she is an effective advocate for her department. She is too politic to say it but it is clear that there is some tension between New Mexico’s position and that of the FDA.

New Mexico was way ahead of the FDA on this and has basically done enough epidemiology to come to the conclusion that it was three particular supermarkets in New Mexico that were ground zero.

Once the New Mexico Health Department made that determination, the trade’s traceback ability kicked in and the trade, worked with the New Mexico Health Deparrtment, and both were quickly able to determine that the tomatoes came from Mexico.

On the other hand, the New Mexico Health Department doesn’t want to buck the FDA, so the New Mexico Health Department keeps issuing these conclusions — but hedging with the caveat that the investigation is still ongoing.

The epidemiology leading to these three individual supermarkets strikes us as odd though. All these chains distribute through distribution centers. So if a single Wal-Mart store, for example, had this problem, and it is related to product, one would expect to see it in other Wal-Mart stores supplied by the same distribution center.

Now, of course, it could be a rare, sporadic episode that only affected a tiny portion of a shipment that happened to go to that one Wal-Mart store — but then how would you expect to see it in three chains?

The only logical way we could imagine these three stores, and only these three stores, being implicated would have been if some independent vendor was selling door-to-door and the managers of these three stores purchased direct, going outside their distribution systems to get a great deal.

This would not only tie all three stores but would mean the produce had not been vetted through the chains’ food safety or quality assurance departments.

Presumably New Mexico and the FDA are looking at all possibilities.

Just as we were writing this piece, another department, the New Mexico Environment Department, sent out a news release. We’re not sure how the people of New Mexico get helped by having multiple departments work on this one outbreak but, apparently, in New Mexico the Environmental Department regulates supermarkets and restaurants.

Many thanks to Deborah Busemeyer and the New Mexico Department of Health for helping to keep the industry informed.

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