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‘Produce’ Or ‘Food Items’

Although CDC’s Dr. Griffin last Friday said, “This is a produce outbreak,” to distinguish it from a tomato outbreak, CDC’s Dr. Robert Tauxe used a different word in an interview with USA Today. He said “we’re broadening the investigation to be sure it encompasses food items that are commonly consumed with tomatoes.”

Obviously there is a big leap from “produce” to “food items,” so CDC should A) use words more carefully to avoid confusion, and B) clarify this issue very quickly.

The big produce items that have been floating around are all linked to Mexican food. A quick glance at the CDC map of the outbreaks shows this is an outbreak focused on the Mexican food belt:

Texas, New Mexico and Arizona have over half of the illnesses, and other areas, such as Chicago, all have large Mexican populations.

In the same USA Todayarticle, a well known food safety expert speculates:

If not tomatoes, what else? “Something that people find difficult to remember but which is always served with tomatoes,” says Tauxe.

That would put salsa, jalapeno peppers, green onions and cilantro at the top of the list of potential culprits, says Doug Powell, director of the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.

Both Dr. Tauxe and Dr. Powell are correct, except there is no logical reason to limit it to produce. Tortilla chips and tortillas would also fit the bill and as they often come free at a Mexican restaurant or as an accompaniment to a dish, it is logical to think people might not remember them.

One gets the feeling, though, that CDC is just grasping at straws. It has no more reason to think it is any of these products than it is chicken. That is why they are so loathe to give up on tomatoes.

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