Supermarkets across the state and restaurants from the Olive Garden to McDonald's pulled all but a few varieties of tomatoes off their shelves Monday as a salmonella scare spread nationwide.
No illnesses have been reported locally, and Minnesota growers were not implicated in the outbreak, which remains under investigation. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said 145 people in 16 states, including Wisconsin, have been sickened in the past two months by raw red plum, red Roma and red, round tomatoes. Twenty-three people have required hospitalization.
"Salmonella isn't something you want to mess with," said Deb Kowalski, a company spokeswoman, explaining why the Kowalski's grocery chain decided Monday morning to pull most tomatoes from its shelves. Other supermarkets did the same, including Rainbow Foods, Cub Foods, SuperTarget, Supervalu, Save-A-Lot, Lunds and Byerly's.
The source of the outbreak hasn't been pinpointed, but the FDA said some states have been ruled out, so tomatoes of all types are safe if grown in Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Tomatoes grown in Belgium, Canada, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel, Netherlands and Puerto Rico are also deemed safe.
Cherry, grape and vine-on tomatoes are considered safe from any source, the FDA said, as are tomatoes grown at home.
The initial alert did not say whether tomatoes from Minnesota growers are safe, and some local supermarkets pulled tomatoes from Bushel Boy Farms, a grower in Owatonna, Minn., that grows tomatoes in greenhouses through the winter.
Bushel Boy was cleared by the FDA on Monday.
"It looks like it's related to Roma tomatoes, and we don't grow that type," said Jay Johnson, the owner of Bushel Boy Farms. His phone was ringing on Monday with buyers looking for a safe supply.
Kowalski said many new sources of tomatoes will soon come on the market as tomatoes ripen in northern states.
McDonald's said it stopped serving sliced tomatoes on its sandwiches as a precaution until the source of the salmonella is known. The company will continue serving grape tomatoes in its salads because no problems have been linked to that variety.
Burger King, Taco Bell, Chipotle Mexican Grill and the Olive Garden also stopped serving most tomatoes.
Other supermarkets that have pulled the affected tomatoes include Ralphs, Winn-Dixie, Giant Eagle, Vons and Albertson's. Wal-Mart said it has pulled tomatoes from some of its stores.
The type of salmonella causing the outbreak is known as Salmonella Saintpaul, named after the Minnesota capital most likely because the bacteria were first isolated there in an earlier outbreak, said Doug Schultz, a spokesman for the Minnesota Health Department. No local cases of illness have been reported in the current outbreak.
"There are thousands of varieties [of salmonella]," Schultz said. "It could have any name. This one just happens to carry the name 'Saintpaul.' It's not one of the more common varieties."
The consequences of salmonella infection may include death, particularly among young children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. Symptoms of infection include fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329