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Restaurants taking no risks with salmonella outbreak

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
When customers ask Fidela Montelongo whether she serves tomatoes, she points to a large eraser board hanging on a wall of her restaurant. In red letters, it reads in Spanish:

“If you wish for tomato to be served with your food, please ask for it…for your health.”

Montelongo, owner of Refresqueria and Taqueria Montelongo on Southmost Boulevard, isn’t the only restaurateur in Brownsville to take the red fruit off the menu after a multi-state salmonella outbreak was linked to raw Roma, red plum and round red tomatoes.

Other businesses are not giving customers an option when ordering.

Jason’s Deli, El Pollo Loco and Whataburger all have signs alerting customers they will not serve tomatoes until further notice. Carino’s Italian Grill has stopped using them in every dish, including salads and sauces, and Taco Palenque is only using tomatoes in their salsa, which is heated to kill bacteria.

But the city also has local fare specializing in Tex-Mex and Mexican dishes that have stopped adding tomatoes to flautas, tortas, tacos, tostadas and salsas. Customers haven’t complained, restaurant owners said.

“I’ve had no trouble with customers,” said Yolanda Barrientos, as she prepared cheeseburgers at her small taqueria on Southmost Boulevard. “In fact, they ask me not to serve them tomatoes. Who wants to get sick?”

Barrientos, owner of Taqueria Mely, said she doesn’t buy tomatoes even though some grocery stores have been authorized to sale them. Other restaurants, like Kikis2, have temporarily switched to using canned tomatoes.

“The food doesn’t taste the same,” owner Marco Martin said. “But what can I do about it?”

The Texas Department of State Health Services has confirmed 68 cases of salmonella in Texas as of June 12, according to its Web site.

Salmonella bacteria cause diarrhea and vomiting, which can lead to dehydration. The bacteria are spread by tainted soil or water and can only be killed effectively with heat.

No city ban on tomato exists because the exact source of the outbreak hasn’t been pinpointed, said Arturo Rodriquez, director of Public Health for the city. Health officials have only recommended restaurants not to use thethree types of tomatoes that have been linked to the outbreak, unless cooked at 145 degrees.

Health officials also advise consumers to properly wash tomatoes.

As published June 12, 2008

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