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Pundit’s Mailbag — Too Quick
To Blame Mexico?

We started with Salmonella And Tomatoes Linked In New Mexico and then ran our SPECIAL REPORT: Tomato/Salmonella Outbreak…Insights and Analysis and received this thoughtful critique:

I have a huge amount of respect for your up-front assertion of this industry’s faults and respectively its positive aspects.

But I am a bit perplexed by this particular column on the salmonella contamination of tomatoes in the South West regions of the USA.

In your piece, Outbreak Alert: FDA Clears Some States And Countries But Not Others, which was part of the Pundit’sSPECIAL REPORT: Tomato/Salmonella Outbreak…Insights and Analysis, you make a statement :

“We have to applaud the FDA for working to minimize the extent and impact of its restrictions. For all practical purposes, this really just leaves Mexico as the source of tainted tomatoes, since Florida production is finished.”

This statement somewhat suggests that the problem is a Mexican problem, although the proper reading of the statement suggests “minimize the extent of impact” you follow up with “Mexico as the source of tainted tomatoes.”

There is no doubt at this point that the other named regions have been eliminated, but Florida has not been eliminated.

Yet your column is suggestive to eliminate Florida from the possibilities of being the source.

Florida was in big production of tomatoes for the time of the contamination and Florida is still in fair production of tomatoes this past week.

The facts remain that it may even be tomatoes of any origin (excluding those mentioned I would hope) that have been repacked and handled by a repacker.

Mexico could be the source, and by the odds of regions sold, and tomato types mentioned, the likelihood is very high.

Yet I find it not your normal self to assess the guilty party with so much missing information.

This spin on elimination of Florida as the possible source is a Bill O’Reilly thing.

It is absolutely a speculative shot at probabilities and it is an opinion that will be considered by many as fact in the way that it is presented by you.

Our company, Red Zoo Marketing, was the first greenhouse marketer in Ontario to have a 3rd-party audited food safety program.

We have worked very diligently to maintain an AIB SUPERIOR rating for 7 years in a row

All of our investments into such traceability is washed away in value with your making assumptions rather than factual conclusions

I remain respectful of your industry opinions, however, I think this particular area of evaluation may be bit too American-minded, no insult intended.

— Jay Colasanti
Red Zoo Marketing
Ruthven, Ontario, Canada

Many thanks to Jay for his kind letter and threes swipes with a wet noodle to the Pundit for inadvertently shutting Florida down too early.

The FDA has clearly not foreclosed the possibility that the tomatoes implicated in the outbreak could be from Florida, and so we will keep that possibility open.

When we look at the CDC map of the outbreak, it does seem to us that it is highly likely that Mexican tomatoes would be implicated:

Since mid-April, 145 persons infected with Salmonella Saintpaul with the same genetic fingerprint have been identified in 16 states: Arizona (12 persons), California (1), Colorado (1), Connecticut (1), Idaho (2), Illinois (17), Indiana (1), Kansas (3), New Mexico (39), Oklahoma (3), Oregon (2), Texas (56 persons), Utah (1), Virginia (2), Washington (1), and Wisconsin (3).

These were identified because clinical laboratories in all states send Salmonella strains from ill persons to their State public health laboratory for characterization. Among the 73 persons who have been interviewed, illnesses began between April 16 and May 27, 2008. Patients range in age from 1 to 82 years; 49% are female. At least 23 persons were hospitalized. No deaths have been reported.

Although it is not definitive, please note that beside one person in Connecticut and two in Virginia — who all may be found to be travelers when this is all done — there is a small cluster in the Midwest and the vast majority of the cases from Texas west.

Nothing is impossible, but this would be an odd geographic dispersion pattern for a Florida-based outbreak, but would make perfect sense for a Mexico-based outbreak.

Jay is in an interesting position with his production bookending the US. After receiving Jay’s letter, we asked if he was still involved in Mexico, which we recalled from some years ago, and received this quick response:

Yes we are very involved in the greenhouse industry in Mexico. Red Zoo has ownership interests in nearly 40 acres in Veracruz, and independently controls and operates an additional 21 acres in the state of Jalisco.

As well as relationships where Red Zoo does the commercialization for other greenhouse growers in different regions in Mexico.

Our production is focused fully on unique specialty products: Baby Eggplant, Baby Seedless Cucumbers, and many, many specialty cherry & cocktail-sized tomatoes

We thank Jay for catching our mistake and trust we’ve clarified our position. We appreciate him keeping us on our toes.

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