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Local restaurants hold the tomatoes

Wed., June 11, 2008

Order a BLT sandwich this week, and the toasted triangles likely will arrive with the “B” and the “L,” but no “T.”

Restaurant owners say they are keeping tomatoes in their refrigerators until told they pose no risk of spreading salmonella, which is suspected in perhaps 200 illnesses in at least 17 states, including Washington.

In some cases – Subway for example – the order to stop using tomatoes came down from the national headquarters.

Mindy Mills, manager of the chain’s Mead store, said she got the directive this weekend. Some customers were surprised when not offered tomato on their sandwiches, but understood when the salmonella problem was explained, she said.

Produce distributors also are advising customers to set aside tomatoes, although there are exceptions.

Mike Kight, owner of Pizza Pipeline, said he continues to garnish his pies with fresh tomatoes. Peirone Produce Co., his supplier, informed him the fruit was imported from Canada and poses no threat, he said.

A few customers have asked questions about the salmonella issue, Kight said, but only one has passed on tomatoes despite the assurance they are safe. Cooked tomatoes used in sauce are not an issue, he noted.

Victor Azar, who operates the café in the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, said distributor Food Services of America told him Tuesday afternoon to put tomatoes aside. He said he had expected deliveries to simply stop, as they did during a spinach E.coli scare in 2006.

He said anything containing tomatoes already prepared for the cafeterias at Avista Corp. and Triumph Composite Systems, which he also manages, will be thrown out.

And the Greek salads he will serve 250 at a weekend bar mitzvah may also arrive at the table sans tomato, he said.

Azar said the tomatoes that are available will be very expensive, an observation backed up by Spokane Produce Inc. President Craig Higashi.

Higashi said produce distributors are frustrated by vague guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. While the agency tries to pinpoint the source of the bad tomatoes, the shelf life of stored fruit ticks away, he said.

In the next day or two, Spokane Produce may have to trash more than $25,000 worth of plum, roma and red round tomato varieties, he said, even though no new cases of salmonella have been reported in two weeks.

Higashi said ordering new tomatoes while supplies are tight and prices high could backfire if the FDA warning is lifted suddenly, and distributors unload low-price stock while it is still saleable.

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