- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

It isn’t “the attack of the killer tomatoes,” but Washington-area restaurants and grocery stores are certainly treating it that way.

Business owners are plucking tomatoes from shelves in hopes of avoiding a salmonella outbreak that has sickened 167 people in 17 states, including two people from Virginia, the Department of Health and Human Services said.

The move stems from a warning issued last weekend by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Certain tomatoes such as the red Roma, red plum, and round red tomatoes should not be eaten unless they were grown in one of the eight states or seven countries whose tomatoes have been determined safe, the FDA said.

The warning has made customers cautious, said Edwin Lastarria, a server at Rosa Mexicano Restaurant in Chinatown. To quell concerns, the restaurant has removed tomatoes from some of its most popular menu items, including guacamole, salsa and several entrees.

“People are worried, so we’re trying to take care of them,” he said.

Although not all types of tomatoes are dangerous, the restaurant decided to remove them anyway. “We don’t want people to get mad or to worry, so we decided to just take the tomatoes off,” Mr. Lastarria said.

Carmine Marzano, chef and owner of Ristorante Luigino near Metro Center, said he hadn’t pulled tomatoes off the menu Tuesday because his restaurant uses the FDA-approved cherry variety. But he will not use any tomatoes Wednesday, he said.

“We’re an Italian restaurant. We have a lot of dishes for people to order like fish and beef, so I don’t expect business to change,” he said, sweeping his hand over the lunchtime crowd packed into his restaurant.

Customers at Luiginos may not have concerns, but other lunchers do.

Latoya Cassimere of New Carrollton said she went to a McDonald’s restaurant and was tempted to buy a cheeseburger, but then remembered the news reports she heard about salmonella-affected tomatoes. She opted for an order of french fries instead.

She made the decision knowing that McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurant chains have pulled tomato items off their menus.

Gates Minis, a nonprofit worker who lives in the District, thinks restaurants and grocery stores are moving too hastily.

“People overreact,” she said. “If you know where your food comes from, you don’t need to be worried.”

She did admit to being a little worried, though: “If it were McDonald’s, I’d be worried.”

Grocery stores have also decided to pull questionable tomatoes off shelves. Spokesmen for Safeway and Giant Food, the two largest grocery chains in the region, said all the suspect tomatoes had been removed from their stores.

“We’re working very hard to provide our customers with a safe and unaffected product,” said Safeway spokesman Greg TenEyck. “We’re pulling all the potentially harmful tomatoes.”

Tomato growers expressed concern over the FDA’s warning and the near panic that ensued.

“It’s just a tragedy,” said Scott Deardorff, whose Deardorff Family Farms grows and packs both round and Roma tomatoes in California.

Ventura County tomato growers don’t begin harvesting this year’s crop until the end of June , and the FDA has already cleared California’s tomatoes. But with the companies asking their stores to pull tomatoes as a precaution in response to a salmonella outbreak, Mr. Deardorff described feeling guilty by association.

“It just hurts a lot of people for really no reason,” he said.

In the past, the FDA warnings concerning food-borne illnesses linked to a particular agricultural commodity have had far-reaching ramifications for companies within an industry.

“They just issue a corporate call to remove all tomatoes,” Mr. Deardorff said. “Everyone gets on the bandwagon.”

In 2006, the last prominent outbreak of salmonella associated with tomatoes, at least 183 illnesses occurred in 21 states. That outbreak was blamed on tomatoes eaten in restaurants. But restaurants didn’t stop serving tomatoes back then.

Experts cited a range of possible explanations for the difference, including the FDA’s quick and specific action.

“This outbreak, the FDA is clearly making an effort to do better to inform consumers,” said Sarah Klein, attorney in the food-safety program for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. “They have been fairly slow in the past.”

But experts acknowledged the current situation is complicated, with companies making announcements at a time some might consider either too late or too early: Too late, in that the outbreak appears to be winding down, with no new illnesses occurring in two weeks. And too early, in that health investigators have not yet pinned down a particular food outlet, distributor or grower as a source of the contaminated tomatoes.

*This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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