We said right from the beginning… How could three separate chains of wildly varying size in the Las Cruces, New Mexico, area all buy from the same supplier? It just doesn’t happen that way with fresh tomatoes.
We hypothesized about the local managers buying outside the procurement system but that became impossible as the outbreak spread.
It cannot be a farm-based problem because there are no farms that were producing tomatoes both at the start and the latest onsets of illnesses in this outbreak.
It cannot be a repacking plant. There is no one large national repacker that takes in tomatoes and redistributes them from California to New York. Repacking is a local and regional game.
Which makes us think that CDC and FDA may be barking up the wrong tree. The only fresh products with broad distribution and a tomato element would be fresh refrigerated salsas, such as are occasionally sold in produce departments but typically sold in the deli department.
In salsa, tomatoes are usually the #1 ingredient, preserved with citric acid and calcium chloride. These products fit the outbreak:
1. Contain tomatoes
2. Preservative and refrigeration gives a long shelf life
3. Made in a factory that could be a plausible source of continuing contamination
4. Sold both in retail and foodservice packs and thus both sold to consumers and used by restaurants
5. Broad distribution from one production plant
Despite what the FDA and CDC say — if there is only one outbreak and if it is caused by a farm-level condition — the outbreak must be over.
We’re not sure why it must be produce — few people eat salsa or guacamole without chips or tortillas, but if it is a fresh product with tomatoes we would look for fresh salsa or Pico de Gallo sold occasionally in produce, often in deli and frequently to foodservice.