June 9, 2008
BLT's Lose Their T

Tomatoes are being sliced from the menus of Sacramento-area restaurants as restaurateurs and chefs respond to an outbreak of salmonellosis linked to the most popular fruit of summer.

So far, however, chain operators with fixed year-round menus are being the most proactive in eliminating tomatoes.

Independently owned restaurants with seasonal and regional menus haven't yet started to use locally grown varieties and are waiting to follow the recommendations of public-health authorities, who already have advised that California-grown cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached, and home-raised tomatoes are safe to eat.

"It's a little early for the big fresh summer tomatoes," says Biba Caggiano, owner of the midtown Sacramento restaurant Biba. "We're using cherry and grape tomatoes from GreenLeaf Produce in San Francisco, and they're FDA approved."

At Bidwell Street Bistro in Folsom, chef Wendi Mentink is taking the same stance. While her new spring menu is heavy with asparagus, tomatoes aren't prominently featured, and won't be until local heirloom varieties start to become available in another two weeks or so.

At Luigi's Pizza Parlor along Stockton Boulevard in Sacramento, owner Frank Brida says he's so confused about the tomato issue that he's stopped topping his pizzas with the fruit until he gets some clarification from local public-health authorities. "The health department should put out a directive," Brida says.

(Alicia Enriquez, program manager in the environmental health division of the County of Sacramento Environmental Management Department, says local authorities are looking into that, but in the meantime are urging restaurateurs, shopkeepers and others concerned about the matter to follow FDA guidelines, which advise against eating raw red plum, raw red Roma, or raw round red tomatoes.)

As a precaution, chains such as Noah's Bagels and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers have pulled tomatoes from their sandwiches and salads in recent days.

"We just want to be on the safe side, providing the freshest and healthiest products we can," says Peter Jakel, communications manager for the Einstein Noah Restaurant Group in Lakewood, Colo., which has some 600 bagel outlets in North America.

Kevin Caulfield, director of communications for Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc. of Greenwood Village, Colo., says the chain discarded and withdrew tomatoes from its 400 outlets, including four in the Sacramento area, last Wednesday.

"We hope it will be of short duration, but it will last until we hear from an authoritative source, such as the FDA, that the tomato supply is safe," says Caulfield.

Workers at Produce Express in Sacramento, which supplies many restaurants, markets, delis and the like with vegetables and fruit, fielded between 300 and 400 calls Monday from customers concerned about the safety of tomatoes they'd bought, says sales manager Jim Mills.

"They're asking if they should continue to use them. We're leaving it up to them. We don't know enough. This is a warning, not a recall," Mills says. "Officials are saying there are bad tomatoes out there, but they can't find them, they don't know where they are from. A little information is dangerous."

In short, Produce Express is advising customers to follow the FDA guidelines. Also, as of Wednesday all tomatoes to be distributed by Produce Express will have been grown in California, Mills says.

So far, about two dozen customers have accepted an offer by Produce Express to exchange tomatoes or to receive credit for their purchases in recent days, Mills notes.

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