At least 167 people have been infected with salmonella from tainted tomatoes across 17 US states, the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday, as growers warned the industry was "in complete collapse."
The government food regulator said that at least 23 people had been hospitalized for infection by Salmonella Saintpaul, a rare strain of the potentially fatal bacteria, with the source traced to raw red tomatoes.
The scare has forced supermarkets and restaurants across the country to pull tomatoes from their shelves and out of their sandwiches and salads.
The FDA warned consumers to avoid raw varieties of red plum, red Roma, and round red tomatoes believed to be the main source of the salmonella infections, the largest number of cases of which have occurred in the southwestern states of Texas and New Mexico.
"At this time, consumers should limit their tomato consumption to tomatoes that have not been implicated in the outbreak. These include cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached, and tomatoes grown at home," the FDA said in a statement.
The exact source of the tainted produce has yet to be identified, but the FDA on Tuesday cleared growers in parts of Florida, as well as California and a number of other smaller producing states.
But as they got back to work, growers in the southeastern state said the scare had cost their industry some 500 million dollars.
"With the FDA's broad consumer alert, the market has been in complete collapse. Crops have remained in fields, packinghouses and in the distribution system," Lisa Lochridge, spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, told AFP.
"Now that the FDA has said Florida tomatoes are safe, our growers are very busy working to get tomatoes back into restaurants and the produce aisle in grocery stores so Americans can enjoy them again."
On Saturday the FDA warned restaurants and retailers not to serve round or Roma tomatoes unless they were grown in areas untouched by the outbreak, leading McDonald's, Chipotle Mexican Grill and other leading fast-food chains to pull tomatoes from sandwiches, dips and other menu items.
On Monday McDonald's said it had received no reports of illness among its customers.
"The safety and well-being of our customers is a top priority," the company said in a statement.