HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Pennsylvania state health authorities last week continued to investigate a large multi-state outbreak of salmonella poisoning that was believed to be linked to fresh-cut tomatoes used on sandwiches sold at Sheetz convenience stores. The outbreak sickened more than 180 people from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia.
At press time, cut Roma tomatoes supplied by Coronet Foods, Wheeling, W.Va., were considered the most likely source of contamination, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Authorities said the outbreak was not the result of improper food handling or safety practices at Sheetz, a 280-unit, privately owned convenience store operator based in Altoona, Pa.
The outbreak appeared to be contained, with Coronet reporting that Roma tomatoes were processed separately from other produce on its lines, and that virtually all of its Romas were sourced exclusively for Sheetz. The chain reacted quickly, disposing of its entire supply of lettuce and tomatoes, and sanitizing deli counters at all of its 300 stores within hours of being linked to the illnesses.
Yet the outbreak highlights safety gaps that still exist within the supply chain and, ironically, came to light a few days after the release of a government report that credited efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Services division for a decline in salmonella as well as E. coli cases from 2002 and 2003.
The FSIS document detailed plans to improve data collection, working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration to estimate how often different illnesses are caused by specific commodities. FSIS oversees the safety of meat, egg and poultry supplies, while the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition oversees the produce industry.
Most records on foodborne outbreaks currently offer no way to estimate how many illnesses were caused by meats and eggs and how many were caused by produce, said Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the FSIS division.
The FSIS document also indicated the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point regulations could be primed for more rigorous oversight at the processor level. FSIS is examining ways to capture statistics collected by meat, egg and poultry processors on foodborne pathogens discovered at their plants. This data would be combined with government inspection data "to analyze and determine how well companies are meeting their responsibilities under HACCP," said Cohen.