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PITTSBURGH -- State health officials say a third, rare strain of salmonella bacteria may be linked to tomatoes served at Sheetz convenience stores believed to have sickened more than 400 people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia, reported the Associated Press.
Health department officials say the discovery that a third strain of salmonella may have tainted the precut Roma tomatoes, which were served in Sheetz deli sandwiches, is no cause for alarm because all of the salmonellosis cases reported so far involve people who ate at Sheetz stores in early July.
But the presence of a third strain could make it more difficult to determine how the tomatoes were contaminated, said state health department spokesman Richard McGarvey.
So far, about 330 people in Pennsylvania and 80 in nearby states have been sickened in the outbreak. All but five of those cases involve people who came into contact with a relatively common strain of salmonella, Javiana, most often found on fresh produce, health officials said.
The other five were sickened by a rare salmonella strain known as S. anatum, and four of those ate at Sheetz stores -- including one in Franklin County where an unopened bag of the same tomatoes tested positive for the S. anatum strain, McGarvey said. No other food samples taken from Sheetz stores tested positive for any kind of salmonella bacteria.
But continued study of laboratory tests suggests that a third bacterial strain -- which health officials didn't name -- may be linked to the tomatoes. "The investigation is ongoing and it is possible an alternative source for these cases will emerge," state health officials said in a statement Friday.
Two lawsuits have been filed as a result of the outbreak, both targeting Coronet Foods of Wheeling, W.Va. Coronet has said laboratory tests found no salmonella at its processing plant, but it has still stopped buying and processing the precut Roma tomatoes it sold to Sheetz.
The Food and Drug Administration is tracing the source of the Sheetz tomatoes and, so far, no other source of salmonella bacteria has been linked to those sickened.