News 4 Investigates: The Tomato Scare - KMOV.com

News 4 Investigates: The Tomato Scare

It became the butt of produce aisle jokes.

"Make sure you don't get the salmonella tomatoes," I heard a woman laugh to her husband during a recent trip to the grocery store.

The danger of a salmonella infection is serious stuff, especially for a person whose immune system isn't strong enough to fight off the disease. So we changed our shopping habits and shunned the varieties of tomatoes that were said to be linked to an increasing number of outbreaks.

Those warnings -- and the way we reacted to them -- crushed the $1 billion a year tomato industry in the peak of the summer growing season. In St. Louis, tomato purveyor Front Row Produce estimates losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What's even more painful for the folks at Front Row is knowing that loss was completely unnecessary.

"Somebody has cried fire in a very small building and created panic througout the United States," said Front Row Produce manager Cindy Pupillo during an interview last week.

Pupillo was outraged that local health officials linked a salmonella outbreak at the Los Tres Amigos restaurant to tomatoes -- even though there was no hard evidence of a connection.

According to a June 18 press release from the Madison County health department, the DNA fingerprint of the local outbreak matched the fingerprint of the national outbreak. Because the FDA was linking the national outbreak to tomatoes, Madison County did the same.

There was just one problem with that chain of logic... Illinois' Department of Public Health had no evidence of a connection between the Los Tres Amigos sickness and tomatoes.

On June 27, the acting chief of the state's Communicable Disease Control Section wrote Pupillo an e-mail which read, in part:

"...the source of the outbreak has not been identified... Illinois has also not determined that tomatoes are the cause of the illnesses reported from our State."

Even knowing that, Madison County Public Health Adminstrator Toni Corona says she wouldn't have handled the situation any different.

"We don't just pull things out of the air and decide that it's this," she said. "We have to have more than just a hunch."

The common DNA signature was reason enough, she said, to issue the press release that unleashed the tomato scare on St. Louis. When lives are at risk, Corona says she will always err on the side of caution -- even if that means scaring people away from a produce item in error.

And smoke continues to pour from Cindy Pupillo's ears.

If the health department can't pin down the cause of an outbreak with absolute certainty, she says it shouldn't risk ruining someone's business with their best guess.

"It's not good enough," she said. "It might have been the cilantro, it might have been another product. you can't just single out one product and say because there's stuff going on in texas with the tomato, it's all over the nation."

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