After officials with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) recently caught 64 illnesses caused by food, quickly identified the pathogen, and then found and removed the contaminated source, their job was all but done except for writing the final report. But there it remained for the past month because the suspect tomatoes were not grown in Minnesota. Like other states with fresh produce grown outside of its borders, Minnesota has to rely on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to “trace the tomatoes back to the farm of origin.” As of Thursday, Oct. 15, neither FDA nor CDC had yet made it official, but word leaked out that the Chipotle restaurant locations in Minnesota where patrons became ill in late August from Salmonella Newport were supplied with tomatoes by Six L’s Packing Co. The company, doing business as Lipman Produce, was added as a defendant in a previously filed federal lawsuit against Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. Lipman, based in Immokalee, FL, is the largest field tomato grower in North America. It grows tomatoes and vegetables on tens of thousands of acres in Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, California and Mexico. The family-held company, founded in the 1930s, is positioned to grow and ship 365 days a year. Lipman packs about 15 million boxes of tomatoes a year, including Cherry, Florida Silk, and Roma varieties. In addition to tomatoes, Six L’s packs and ships corn, cucumbers, melons, peppers, and potatoes. Its customers include wholesale, retail, and food service. The Lipman tomatoes were being served in at least 22 Chipotle locations in Minnesota during the latter half of August, when 64 people were known to have dined at one of the fast-casual Mexican restaurants and subsequently were sickened with Salmonella Newport. Nine of them were hospitalized. Most of the illnesses occurred between Aug. 19 and Sept. 3 from meals consumed as early as Aug. 16. In response, Chipotle removed the offending tomatoes from its Minnesota restaurants and switched to another supplier. Food Safety News invited both FDA and Chipotle to comment on the progress of the trace-back investigation, but neither accepted the offer. Since many people who become infected with salmonellosis do not seek treatment, MDH officials said that the Salmonella outbreak involving Chipotle restaurants was probably much larger than just the identified cases. Dana Eikmeier, state epidemiologist in MDH’s Foodborne Disease Unit, called Chipotle “extremely proactive” in helping to control the outbreak and identify the source of the contamination. The restaurants where people were sickened were mainly located in the Twin Cities area, including some outlying counties to the north and south. During the period when people were exposed to the bad tomatoes, Chipotle reportedly served 560,000 consumers.
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