More than 550 people in 32 states sickened, and 50-plus hospitalized. More than $100 million in losses to the tomato industry.
The costs of one of the largest salmonella outbreaks linked to tomatoes still are being tallied, just as are the effects on consumer confidence. For the short term, consumers seem to be taking in stride the removal of tomatoes from — and return to — restaurant menus and store shelves.
"Initially, people were very concerned about it," said Joe Devellis, who owns and operates three Giove's Pizza Kitchen restaurants in Connecticut . "We got a bunch of phone calls in the first few days."
DeVellis pulled tomatoes off the menu at his restaurants when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration first raised concerns about tainted tomatoes. The company's vendors were later cleared by the FDA, and tomatoes returned to Giove's menu within a few days.
"I don't think we lost business because of the scare," DeVellis said. "We still had cherry tomatoes, which weren't part of the problem. If someone asked for tomatoes we would use those."
The three largest pizza chains, Pizza Hut, Papa John's and Domino's, all posted notices on their Web sites advising customers that the cooked tomatoes in pizza sauce weren't implicated in the salmonella scare. Pizza Hut and Domino's temporarily removed fresh tomato products from their menus, while Papa John's advised customers that none of its menu items included uncooked tomatoes.
Fort Lauderdale , Fla.-based Pizza Fusion, which markets itself as an organic pizza chain, temporarily removed organic tomatoes from its menu, although it has since added them back.
"When the scare started, organic tomatoes were coming from Florida and Mexico, so we had our franchisees buy either conventional tomatoes from approved sources or organic tomatoes from those regions (not affected by the outbreak)," said Ashley Rathgeber, supply development manager at Pizza Fusion. "We are currently purchasing organic tomatoes from Georgia."
Tracing outbreak a complex issue
Although most of the tomatoes used in pizza sauce come from either Italy or California , areas not affected by the salmonella outbreak, growers fear the crisis could have a widespread impact.
According to the California Tomato Grower's Association, consumer demand for tomatoes is off about 60 percent, while demand from restaurants is off about 30 percent.
Some areas of Florida still haven't been cleared by the FDA, posing a major threat to that state's $700-million tomato industry.
While pizzeria operators have addressed the crisis in the short term, food safety officials say changes are needed to help manage such incidents in the future.
Tracing the source of the outbreak is complicated by the fact that tomatoes do not have individual identifiers such as barcodes, and tomatoes grown on different farms often are commingled in the packing process, said FDA spokesman Sebastian Cianci. The FDA would like to implement measures to improve the traceability of the produce in order to speed up investigations, he said.
Adding to the difficulty is that tomatoes from different farms may be mixed together, making tracing an outbreak even more difficult. Commingling occurs, for example, when buyers such as restaurants request a specific-size tomato, so that batches of produce from several farms are hand-sorted and packed together before shipment.
Positive Lot Identification required
Another problem lies in the lack of identification mechanisms, making trace-backs difficult, as evidenced by the FDA's difficulty in quickly pinpointing the source of this outbreak.
Florida 's regulations require Positive Lot Identification (PLI) for every package of produce to leave a packinghouse or a supplier. The PLI allows for clear identification of the source of the tomatoes, but not necessarily the date it was grown. It ensures a package, or lot, can be traced backward to the farm or forward to the buyer, Roberts said. The FDA seems to have the start of such an identification system in place as it allows tomatoes from southern Florida and Baja , Mexico , to enter the U.S. supply chain once again. Only tomatoes accompanied by a certificate showing they were grown after the initial outbreak are accepted — a system to allow the FDA to trace the source more readily.
Until federal mandates are in place, the restaurant industry can do what it can to ensure the fresh produce it receives has been handled properly at all ends of the supply chain. Knowing all the links in the supply chain is essential to preventing health crises like the current one with tomatoes, said Donna Garren, vice president of health and safety regulatory affairs for the National Restaurant Association.
The association encourages its members to develop a relationship with its suppliers in order "to ensure everyone along each point is doing what they can to ensure a safe product," Garren said. That means restaurant operators need to be aware of the food safety standards in place — and followed — by the supplier as well as the distributor, packagers and farmers in that supply chain.
Roberts agreed that restaurant operators must do their part.
"The restaurants are such an important, key part of the food safety chain, too," Roberts said. "Buy from somebody that has their product coded in which you would be able to get back if you had a problem. Just make sure you buy from somebody that's got good traceable records."
* Pizza Marketplace editor Richard Slawsky contributed to this report.
Christa is editor of QSRweb.com and contributes to FastCasual.com and PizzaMarketplace.com. She has experience in the restaurant industry as well as 15 years as a journalist.