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Tomatoes trigger salmonella outbreak

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Tomatoes trigger salmonella outbreak
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A nationwide salmonella outbreak has merchants yanking tomatoes from their shelves while health officials search for more answers.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration named three types of tomatoes - raw red plum, red Roma and round red - as the likely culprits of the outbreak. Since April, 145 salmonella infections have been reported, and at least 23 people in 16 states have been hospitalized, according to the FDA.

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Local supermarkets continue to pull tomatoes from their shelves Monday after being faced with a salmonella outbreak, while other chain restaurants have resumed their normal business by seeking tomatoes from FDA-approved areas.

Any cooked tomato product, such as spaghetti sauce or soup, is safe to eat, said Dean Hornbacher, president of Hornbacher's Foods.

Hornbacher's Foods pulled its round red tomatoes and the red Romas from their stores Monday. Although they use a local vegetable producer from Detroit Lakes, Minn., the state hasn't yet been cleared by the FDA, Hornbacher said.

"Minnesota isn't known for being a tomato-producing state, so we've removed those from sale, too, out of an abundance of caution," Hornbacher said.

Minnesota is expected to be cleared by the FDA sometime today, said John Skarie, production manager of Lakeview Greenhouses in Detroit Lakes, Minn. He expects his tomatoes to be back on shelves today.

Skarie said Minnesota was excluded from the first set of states to be cleared as an oversight by the FDA.

"We don't grow tomatoes outdoors," he said. "All the tomatoes with problems with salmonella were grown outside in fields."

National chains including Subway, McDonalds, Taco Bell and Wal-Mart have removed tomatoes from their products in compliance with FDA regulations. Darden Restaurants, which owns six brands including Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., also suspended use of tomatoes until an answer is found.

On the other hand, Qdoba Mexican Grill is back in full production today after a week-long hiatus from making Pico de Gallo salsa, the restaurant's most popular salsa.

The tomatoes are on-the-vine tomatoes, which have been cleared by the FDA, said Sandy Simmons, area manager for restaurants in Fargo-Moorhead.

The salsa's temporary absence did not impact their business, Simmons said, and customers appreciated their proactive approach.

"Most of them think it's a great idea what we've done," Simmons said.

Local greenhouse vegetable grower Bill Hildebrand said it's the consumer's responsibility to know the origins of the food they eat. For those who are already buying homegrown tomatoes, Hildebrand said he wouldn't panic.

"These big farmers don't care what they have to do to save on costs," he said. "I think people should do their own gardening. If they buy local produce that is homegrown, they shouldn't have to worry about this salmonella stuff."

For Orville Erickson, tomatoes won't be an item on his menu for a long time.

"I won't eat them for a while," he said.

His wife, Anita, disagrees.

"Oh, I will. I love them," she said with a laugh.

Hornbacher's sixgrocery stores will keep tomatoes off their shelves until they find out if the FDA has approved them, Hornbacher said. He expects to know if he can put them back up for sale by Wednesday.

But even if he had to destroy his entire inventory of tomatoes, Hornbacher said Hornbacher's Foods would be minimally affected.

"It's not been a big issue," he said. "We don't carry huge inventories of tomatoes because it's a highly perishable product, so we'll just have to see when we get clarification if we have to destroy any of them."

Skarie, the Detroit Lakes production manager, said the salmonella outbreak makes a statement about supporting local food suppliers.

"It goes to show you how hard it is to keep food clean and safe when you mass produce it," he said. "They can't do it safely, consistently."

Salmonella

Salmonella is a group of bacteria that live in intestines and are transmitted to humans by consuming food contaminated by animal feces, according to the Center for Disease Control Web site.

Salmonella infections usually cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps within 12-72 hours.

The illness lasts four to seven days and is particularly risky for young children, elderly people and those with a weakened immune system.

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