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Attack of the Not-So-Killer Tomatoes

Jun
16
2008

I’m almost as fed up (pun intended) with writing about food recalls as I am learning about them. Some good news on the food front would really be nice, but I’m afraid that with 238 people reportedly sickened with salmonella from contaminated tomatoes there is none this week.

That 238 doesn’t sound like very many but using the Center for Disease Control estimates – only one in 30 cases of salmonella poisoning is reported – you can figure over 7,000 people got sick.

TomatoesNow, in all fairness, given a U.S. population of 304 million, 7,000 case of stomach cramps (and worse) isn’t even a statistical blip. Besides, salmonella is seldom fatal in healthy people. So, if I lacked a sympathetic soul, I would suggest that anyone willing to eat a non-local, out of season, cardboard tomato shipped from God-knows-where and served in a fast-food joint probably deserves their fate. Fortunately I do have a sympathetic soul and have suffered from food poisoning myself I know that even if you don’t die from contaminated food you may wish you would – just to end the misery.

What’s really troubling about food poisoning is that the numbers are beginning to add up. Reported incidences have increased steadily over the past 30 years. Better reporting or more incidents? My bet is on both. And it’s troubling. We know we take a risk every time we get into an automobile and we’ve become inured to it. Yeah, it’s risky, but it’s an acceptable risk. Risky food, though, is a different matter. We expect what we eat to be safe, comfortable, and nutritious. When something like a tomato goes bad it throws our sense of order out of whack.

This most recent case is unique in the recent spate of contamination stories because it involves tomatoes. Although according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest there have been some 24 cases of tomato contamination since 1990 with around 3,000 reported cases, tomatoes are a rather rare source of food poisoning. There’s a good reason for this.

Salmonella, like e-Coli, lives primarily in the intestines of animals and the bacteria is usually passed on through feces. The initial contamination can come from animal waste from wild animals or from improperly processed manure used for fertilizer, or it can be passed on by poor worker hygiene. When contaminated products are processed with uncontaminated products as they often are in our increasingly industrial food system the contamination is spread from the dirty to the clean. As the old saying goes, one bad apple spoils the barrel.

But tomatoes have a tough, thick, impermeable skin, unlike lettuce or spinach that can absorb off-flavors. That’s why they can go through a chlorine rinse after picking to kill any external contamination. The implication with this latest round of food poisoning is that the fruit’s flesh – the inside – was contaminated. That raises two questions: 1) How can the salmonella get in to inflect the flesh? and 2) how can it get out to infect other tomatoes?

Obviously damage to the flesh can allow microbes to enter. But when was the last time you bought a tomato with an open wound except, possibly, from a farm stand where a recent rain has caused the tomato to split? And it’s safe to assume that even at Wendy’s or BurgerKing the produce buyers avoid cases where items are damaged.

So given that, how does contamination in one apparently pristine (albeit cardboard) tomato get into another? In an article by Barry Estabrooks in Gourmet, according to David Gombas at the United Fresh Produce Association, “the exact mechanism remains a food-safety mystery that the industry would dearly love to solve.”

I’ll bet they would. And in case they don’t, Keith Warriner at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada has been working on a salmonella vaccine for tomatoes designed to make them resistant to the bacteria.

Actually, that last question doesn’t really interest me – except intellectually. I only buy tomatoes when they’re in-season (in about a month or so, here in the U.S.) and then only from local farms.

I might still get sick from one but I’ll never get sick because of one contaminated tomato fell in with the 40,000 other clean tomatoes at the processing plant and spread its gut-wrenching microbes to my lunch-time BLT.

How to Choose a Tomato
The tomato should feel heavy for it’s size. It should be firm but not hard – a light squeeze should give you the feeling that a hard a squeeze would bruise it. But as with almost all vegetables and fruits, smell it. If it doesn’t smell like a tomato it probably never will and certatinly won’t taste like a tomato. When buying at the supermarket, avoid flaws in the skin and choose tomatoes that still have a stem attached. Hopefully, this will allow you to avoid contaminated tomatoes even in a supermarket. When buying at a farmers market or farm stand you needn’t be so picky about flaws in the skin (a heavy rain will cause tomatoes to split open) and a just-picked perfectly ripe tomato won’t have a stem since it was – before picking ripe and ready to let go of the mother plant.

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