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PITTSBURGH – On the heels of reports that Pennsylvania health department officials suspect that a third, rare strain of salmonella bacteria may be linked to tomatoes served at Sheetz convenience stores, the Altoona, Pa.-based chain ran full-page advertisements in the Sunday editions of leading daily newspapers in its core Pittsburgh market.
Titled "From the Sheetz Family" and styled as an open letter, the ad began with a statement describing the company's 52-year commitment to building relationships with customers, employees, and the communities it serves.
Acknowledging the link between Roma tomatoes sold at its stores and subsequent reports of illness throughout July, the ad continued, "Some of our customers became ill, and for that we are truly sorry."
The ad continued: "The past month has been very challenging, and we want to convey our gratitude to the many people who have supported us," including customers who "have expressed your confidence in us even as you have shared our concern," employees whose "commitment to quality and stringent food safety practices" and "unmatched and unwavering" dedication to customers "make us very proud," and state and federal health officials who acted "early and decisively" to confine the incident.
The ad went on to note that government officials have told the chain that it has "eliminated all known risks that were associated with this incident."
In the ad's final paragraph, Sheetz described its continuing customer commitment: "Sheetz is more than a business for each of us. Each store bears our family name. From our founding as a neighborhood deli in 1952 to the present, our family has always believed we have an unwritten contract to meet and exceed your needs. It is our pledge to continue to work day and night to honor our contract with each of you, and build relationships that matter. Sincerely, Steve Sheetz, Stan Sheetz, Louie Sheetz, Joe M. Sheetz, Joe S. Sheetz, Travis Sheetz." Calls to Sheetz requesting additional comment were not returned.
At the foot of the ad, the company invited customers who wish to learn more and/or communicate with the c-store chain to visit its Web site, which features a special link with relevant updates and information about the outbreak.
To date, 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. 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, according to a Pennsylvania health department official. No other food samples taken from Sheetz stores tested positive for any kind of salmonella bacteria.
Continued studies of laboratory tests suggest that a third, rare bacterial strain -- salmonella thompson -- has been identified in about a dozen cases.
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.
No new cases of salmonella have been reported for nearly a month.
-- Meg Major