Live

Watch CBSN Live

Tomato Industry Threatened By Outbreak

Federal officials hunted for the source of a salmonella outbreak in Connecticut and 16 other states linked to three types of raw tomatoes, while the list of supermarkets and restaurants yanking those varieties from shelves and menus grew.

McDonald's, Wal-Mart, Burger King, Kroger, Outback Steakhouse, Winn-Dixie and Taco Bell were among the companies that voluntarily withdrew red plum, red Roma or round red tomatoes unless they were grown in certain states and countries.

Meanwhile, growers are panicking that the outbreak could shrivel up their summer market.

Federal authorities today cleared fresh tomatoes grown in Florida and California of any responsibility in the national food poisoning scare, which has sickened 167 people since April. Those are the nation's top two tomato-producing states.

At East Coast Growers and Packers near Tampa Florida, there's a whole lot of tomato picking going on, but not much else.

"Normally we'd have about 150 people employed in the packing house," supervisor Rob Meade told CBS News Correspondent Kelly Cobiella.

"Where are they today?" Cobiella asked.

"They're waiting to be called to come back to work," Meade said.

Florida's tomato packing plants are quiet. Shipping trucks empty and warehouses stocked with fruit that won't sell. Ninety percent of the nation's fresh tomatoes come from Florida fields this time of year. A $1-billion industry is on the verge of collapse, because of yet another food scare.

"How much do you think you've lost so far?" Cobiella asked.

"It's in the millions," Meade said. "It's in the millions for us alone."

Ground zero for the latest salmonella outbreak seems to be in the southwest. More than half of those who've become ill are in New Mexico and Texas. Raul Rivera's family was celebrating "good news" about his fight against cancer at a party in Houston. The salsa made him sick.

"I thought it would be over in a few days or I would have brought him to the hospital immediately and he kept getting worse," said Raul's wife, Barbara Rivera.

Doctors say cancer killed the 67-year-old, but salmonella poisoning was a contributing factor in his death.

The FDA added Florida tomatoes to their safe list today. But growers here are worried. It'll take a while before consumers are comfortable putting tomatoes on the table again.

Farmers say the list of safe-to-eat varieties still isn't enough to convince consumers that tomatoes are safe for salads and salsas, or to move their crops back on grocery shelves and restaurant menus.

The FDA is investigating the source of the outbreak, agency spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said. "We are working hard and fast on this one and hope to have something as quickly as possible," Rawlings said Monday.

Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached and homegrown tomatoes are likely not the source of the outbreak, federal officials said.

Also not associated with the outbreak are raw red Roma, red plum and round red tomatoes from Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Belgium, Canada, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel, Netherlands and Puerto Rico.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that since mid-April, 167 people infected with salmonella with the same "genetic fingerprint" have been identified. At least 23 people have been hospitalized.

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.

The salmonella causing the outbreak is a very unusual type called salmonella saintpaul, said FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach, who added it was not more virulent than other types of salmonella.

McDonald's, the world's largest hamburger chain, stopped serving sliced tomatoes on its sandwiches as a precaution, but will continue serving grape tomatoes in its salads because no problems have been linked to that variety.

The decision didn't upset Connie Semaitis, a 49-year-old travel agent in downtown Chicago, who bought a cheeseburger and a drink at a McDonald's during lunch hour Monday.

"I'd rather be safe than sorry," Semaitis said.

Tampa-based OSI Restaurant Partners LLC, which owns and operates eight brands including Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's and Bonefish Grill, said it stopped serving all raw tomatoes other than grape tomatoes on Saturday evening. The company also instructed restaurants to discard salsa and other prepared foods containing raw tomatoes.

Burger King Corp. said it had withdrawn raw round red tomatoes from most of its U.S. restaurants, as well as locations in Canada and Puerto Rico and some other Caribbean islands. Some California restaurants continued using the tomatoes because they buy from growers in states the FDA has said are not involved in the outbreak, Burger King said.

Other restaurant operators that stopped serving most tomatoes: Yum Brands Inc., which owns Taco Bell, KFC, Long John Silver's and A&W All-American Food Restaurants; Darden Restaurants, which owns and operates six brands including Red Lobster and Olive Garden; Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.; and Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp., which operates Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes restaurants in 15 states.

Among retailers, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. - the largest grocery seller in the U.S. - is working with federal officials to ensure affected tomatoes are pulled from Wal-Marts, Neighborhood Markets and Sam's Club warehouse stores nationwide, spokeswoman Deisha Galberth said.

Galberth said the company is modifying orders to its stores and putting an electronic block at its registers as an added safety measure to keep the recalled tomatoes from being purchased.

Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., the nation's largest traditional grocery chain, said it pulled the three types of tomatoes from all its stores in 31 states on Sunday per the FDA advisory. The company had early last week pulled the tomatoes from stores in Texas and New Mexico.

Winn-Dixie Stores Inc., which operates 521 stores in five southern states, also stopped selling tomatoes involved in the FDA warning, as did Publix Super Markets Inc. Publix offered refunds to customers who bought the tomatoes before they were removed from shelves.

Trader Joe's, with more than 280 grocery stores in 23 states, also stopped selling the tomatoes in question and offered refunds, according to a statement from spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki.

Giant Eagle, which has 223 supermarkets in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland, said it also removed the tomatoes from store shelves; as did SuperValu Inc., which operates Jewel, Shaw's, Cub Foods, Acme and some Albertson's stores.