Tomato scare hits Cayman

Tomatoes have been withdrawn from stores and restaurants throughout Cayman following a salmonella outbreak in the US.

Foster's Food Fair

The tomato population at Foster’s Food Fair stores has drastically been cut because of a tomato scare in the United States. Photo: Jewel Levy

Inspectors from the Department of Environmental Health visited shops Tuesday to check that the tomatoes had been taken from display units and were being held in quarantine.

The US Food and Drug Administration has banned the export of certain kinds of tomatoes suspected in the multi-state outbreak, which has infected at least 145 people since mid-April, hospitalising 23.

On Monday, Foster’s and Hurley’s removed plum or Roma tomatoes and round red tomatoes from displays, and suppliers stopped delivering them to restaurants and retailers. Kirk’s was yesterday awaiting more specific data on where the tomatoes linked to the salmonella outbreak hailed from before removing its stock.

‘We have pulled the two items off the shelves. That’s the slicing tomatoes and the Roma or plum tomatoes. We haven’t ordered any fresh produce until we’re told they are OK,’ said Woody Foster of Foster’s.

He said that other kinds of tomatoes, including cherry or grape and those still on the vine, were still available but he expects those stocks to run out quickly in the absence of the larger round tomatoes.

Customers at Burger King cannot have it their way if they wanted tomatoes in their burgers or sandwiches as the fruit is no longer available until alternate supply can be found or until tomatoes are given the all clear.

‘We withdrew tomatoes from our establishments as soon as the news broke. We use tomatoes in about 70 per cent of our sandwiches, so now they’re going out without tomatoes,’ the restaurant’s Operations Manager Fred Dallas said.

The ban has also affected major suppliers, including Cayman Imports, which brings up to $30,000 worth of the tomatoes into the island every month.

‘We have quarantined the varieties of tomatoes the FDA has indicated we cannot sell. Until it’s lifted by the FDA, there will be no importation as vendors won’t ship them,’ said Sharleen Duval, general manager of Cayman Imports said:

Cayman Imports supplies tomatoes to many of its 400 customers, she said.

If the FDA does not lift its restrictions soon, the crates of tomatoes quarantined in warehouses and stores throughout the island will have to be destroyed and dumped at the landfill.

Italian restaurants, which use tomatoes extensively in their dishes, are expecting to be affected.

Andi Marcher, who owns Ragazzi Italian restaurant, said that while the tomatoes available here were not ideal for sauce-making, the tomatoes were used in mozzarella salad dishes.

‘I bring in tinned tomatoes from Italy, which actually taste better than the fresh ones here,’ he said, but he admitted the ban ‘hasn’t affected us yet, but it will.’

The Department of Agriculture, Department of Environment Health and the Public Health Department were working to deal with the issue.

Director of Environmental Health Roydell Carter advised members of the public to throw away plum or Roma tomatoes they had already bought, as a precaution.

‘We’re visiting supermarkets to determine where they can hold the tomatoes until there is more information forthcoming from the FDA.’

He added that store-owners and retails had cooperated with the recall.

‘Cooperating on a food recall is really for their own benefit. If a product has been recalled and someone still insists on using it and something happens, they take on added liability,’ Mr Carter said.

If enormous quantities of the fruit need to be dumped from suppliers and vendors, the department would make a site available where they could be collected and arrangements would be made to bury them in the landfill, Mr Carter said.

No local cases of salmonella relating to tomato consumption have been reported, according to Department of Public Health epidemiologist Timothy McLaughlin-Munroe.

People infected with food-borne salmonella bacterium can suffer from diarrhoea, fever, dehydration, abdominal pain and vomiting. It can cause life-threatening illnesses in people with weakened immune systems or those in poor health.

The FDA has advised that tomatoes grown in the following countries and US states are safe for consumption – Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, Texas, Belgium, Canada, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel, Holland and Puerto Rico.