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Tomato panic hits Southern Crescent

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

As far as 85-year-old James Bridgeman is concerned, he just barely survived death-by-tomato.

The Jonesboro man ate a tomato salad a few weeks ago, right before the Food and Drug Administration reported a nationwide outbreak of salmonella and warned of tainted tomatoes.

"I had diarrhea for days," Bridgeman said. "I thought I was going to die. I called Pope Dixon [funeral directors] and made some arrangements, but now I think I'm going to recover."

Since mid April, there have been 228 confirmed cases of salmonella poisoning and at least 25 reported hospitalizations, according to the FDA. The tomato-linked outbreak was first noticed in Texas and New Mexico and then, four days after the FDA's initial report, states from California to Connecticut reported cases.

Salmonella is a group of bacteria, according to Pritzker

Ruohonen, a Minnesota law firm which identifies itself as "a national salmonella law firm." It is commonly contracted from feces and can infect soil and water and the plants grown in infected soil and water. Salmonella poisoning causes diarrhea, and in some cases, can be dangerous, normally because of dehydration.

"If I gave you some advice, would you take it?" Bridgeman said. "Don't eat any tomatoes."

The FDA, in a June 7 release, warned people about tomatoes, but emphasized that not all tomatoes are poisonous. Only some raw tomatoes grown in some places are considered possibly dangerous. A list of some possibly tainted tomato breeds, including red plum tomatoes, red Roma tomatoes and red round tomatoes was released, along with a list of places that were only growing safe tomatoes -- including Georgia, Alabama and 19 Florida counties.

Clyde Alexander, the McDonough man who owns and operates Alexander Produce, selling wholesale at the Atlanta State Farmers Market in Forest Park, said the finer points about safe breeds and regions have all been lost in the week and a half of public panic.

"It's just stopped sales," said Alexander. "A lot of your vendors don't know what to do. Two-hundred-twenty-eight people have shut down an entire industry. Because they had diarrhea for a few days. Well, you can go eat at some fast food restaurants and get the same results."

About half of Alexander's sales used to be tomatoes. Now, he said, he's selling about 15 to 18 percent of the tomatoes he was selling before the tomato scare. This is despite the fact that he sells tomatoes from Georgia and northern Florida regions which are deemed safe, and crops which weren't even picked when the bacteria struck stomachs across the nation.

The whole thing frustrates him, because he didn't do anything wrong, isn't selling anything even possibly dangerous, and yet his business is badly suffering from a scare. "Most of the people that went to the hospital," said Alexander, "they were hospitalized for dehydration. I heard about this one old boy, he had cancer and they're saying the tomatoes killed him."

Naomi Santiago is passing out a printout, to all her customers at the farmers' market, explaining that all the tomatoes she sells at Naomi's Tomatoes, Inc., are grown in safe, FDA-approved places.

"All Florida shipments have been received with a certificate issued by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services," the printed release says.

Santiago said this has been one of the hardest weeks in the tomato-selling business.

"We've seen a 50 percent drop in sales this week," the Stockbridge woman said.

For someone who loves tomatoes, though, Santiago sees another downside to the scare: "It just gives tomatoes a bad name," she said.