- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2004

Health officials in Maryland and Virginia are battling an outbreak of salmonella poisoning that left at least 36 local residents ill in the past month.

Officials from the two state health departments said yesterday they still are interviewing and testing 26 other residents to determine whether their cases are connected to the outbreak that also sickened nearly 300 people in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. Officials with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) think that the Roma tomatoes sold at the Sheetz convenience stores were the source of the outbreak.

All 36 cases in Maryland and Virginia occurred in the first 13 days of July, health officials said. No deaths have been reported.

Both state health departments are assisting an investigation led by the FDA and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Investigations are common,” said Michelle Stoll, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Health. “But it’s not very common for us to be in a multistate investigation.”

So far, health officials reported five cases of salmonella poisoning in Virginia and 31 cases in Maryland. Virginia officials said they still are determining whether 19 other salmonella-poisoning cases are linked to the latest outbreak. Maryland officials are working on seven similar cases.

The 36 patients were infected with a strain of salmonella called Salmonella Javiana, which has been tied to contaminated Roma tomatoes in the past, according to tests conducted by epidemiologists in Maryland and Virginia.

Sheetz stores have removed Roma tomatoes from their salad bars and made-to-order sandwiches and replaced them with “hot house” tomatoes provided by a different food supplier, said Steve Sheetz, the company’s chairman. The company has offered to cover any medical costs for patients infected by the Roma tomatoes.

“There were no sanitation problems at Sheetz; there were no cleanliness lapses at Sheetz,” he said. “It was not a store-specific problem. It was a source problem.”

The FDA has traced the Roma tomatoes to a group of farms in several states in the southeastern United States, which is now under investigation, said an FDA official, who did not want to be identified.

A spokesman for Coronet Foods, the West Virginia-based supplier that provided the Roma tomatoes to Sheetz, has cooperated with the investigation.

Salmonella bacteria live in the intestinal tracts of humans and animals, according to the CDC’s Web site www.cdc.gov.

Produce can become contaminated with the bacteria through hand contact with farmers or through infected soil, among other ways, the FDA official said.

Patients who eat contaminated food develop symptoms ranging from diarrhea to stomach cramps and fever, which usually develop 12 to 72 hours after infection and last about a week and a half, according to the CDC.

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