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Salmonella outbreak causes mixed response from Columbia businesses

Wednesday, June 4, 2008 | 5:44 p.m. CDT; updated 1:31 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — An outbreak of salmonella food poisoning first linked to uncooked tomatoes has now been reported in nine states, U.S. health officials said Tuesday. However, as of Wednesday afternoon, no cases had been reported in Missouri.

Grocery stores in Columbia, such as Schnucks and Wal-Mart, are aware of the salmonella outbreak in tomatoes but said there is no reason to believe the stores are carrying the tainted produce.

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Paul Simon, the spokesman for Schnucks, said the store chain has not received any word that they have any of these tomatoes and they will “keep an eye on the situation.” So far, no tomatoes have been recalled in any of the Schnucks grocery stores.

Similarly, Columbia Wal-Mart stores have not been informed by Wal-Mart headquarters to recall any items, but assistant manager at the West Broadway location, Awe Abayan, said they also will continue to monitor the outbreak.

One business that has taken the precaution of removing tomatoes from their menu is Which Wich? at 102 S. Ninth St.

“We really have no reason to be concerned here,” said Kelly Keller, store general manager. “It was done company-wide just to be safe.”

As for local tomato growers, Caroline Todd, manager of the Columbia Farmers’ Market said that the tomato growing season has not really started yet. As a result, the market has not seen any noticeable increase in patrons because its two tomato vendors were already selling out before news broke of the outbreak.

In Texas and New Mexico, raw large tomatoes — including Roma and red round tomatoes — were found to be a common factor in 40 illnesses. Lab tests confirmed the 40 illnesses resulted from the same type of salmonella, right down to the genetic fingerprint.

But no farm, distributor or grocery chain has been identified as the main source, said Casey Barton Behravesh, an epidemiologist from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who is working on the investigation.

“The specific type and source of tomatoes is under investigation,” she said.

At least 17 people in Texas and New Mexico have been hospitalized. None has died, according to the CDC.

Another 30 people have become sick with the same Salmonella Saintpaul infection in Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, Illinois and Indiana. CDC investigators are looking into whether tomatoes were culprits there, too.

Salmonella is a bacteria that lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals. The bacteria are usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal feces. Most infected people suffer fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps starting 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness tends to last four to seven days.

Many people recover without treatment. However, severe infection and even death is possible. Infants, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are at greatest risk for severe infections.

In Texas and New Mexico, the patients ranged in age from 3 to 82. Of the 40, 38 were interviewed. Most said they ate raw tomatoes from stores or restaurants before becoming ill between April 23 and May 27.

Another 17 cases are under investigation in New Mexico, CDC officials said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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