Sorting Through the Tomato Pulp

As expected, there were several questions about the salmonella-tainted tomato scare in yesterday's chat, so I'll try and break it down.

Tomatoes: Hey Kim. I'm trying to remember 8th grade home ec...what exactly is salmonella?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC), salmonella is a group of bacteria that can cause diarrhea and related illnesses. It is passed through both animal and human feces. There are several kinds of salmonella strains; the strain associated with the current tomato scare is Saintpaul. The infection caused by salmonella contamination is called salmonellosis.

And how have tomatoes contracted it (from what I remember, vegetables weren't the potential contaminates my teacher warned us about.) It's not like e. coli that you can just wash off, correct?

Usually, salmonella is associated with animal products - poultry, beef, milk or eggs, but vegetables are not out of the question, and here's why:

It's all about the poop. I know, not a pleasant thought, but salmonella travels through human and animal waste, possibly resulting from fecal-contaminated water runoff on a farm (from feedlot and industrial scale farms, in particular) or a farm worker or food handler who's not using soap and water after using the bathroom.

Generally speaking, the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) recommends a few precautionary measures when handling tomatoes in its tomato-scare FAQ.

Thoroughly wash the tomato under running water, then wash your hands under hot and soapy water. Because salmonella can be passed through cross-contamination, thoroughly wash all cooking surfaces and utensils that came in contact with a cut tomato (like you would with raw poultry).

Are tomatoes from local growers (farmer's markets etc.) safe provided they are washed thoroughly?

The FDA has issued a very long dizzying list of domestic and international tomato spots NOT affected by the outbreak, and if you can come up with a way to make sense of it, give me a call.

Here's my personal, unscientific rule of thumb: Buy local tomatoes. Like we learned from the horrible spinach scare in 2006, the source of contamination came from industrial-scale farms (via bagged supermarket spinach), not from your local farmer's market. Here in Washington, vine tomatoes are still at least a month away, and if you do see them on display at your local market, it means they're probably from a greenhouse. But that's the beauty of going to the farmer's market -- there's a real person behind the stand available for consultation and guidance, someone who can tell you how the tomato was grown and handled.

So, to minimize your chances of eating contaminated food: Buy local and seasonal. Thoroughly wash all raw produce. And wash your hands!

Chicago, Ill: I had purchased a big box of tomatoes from Costco last week and made my own dried tomatoes in my new food dehydrator. I ended up throwing the whole batch away, which made me sad but I wasn't taking any chances.

It is too bad you had to throw these tomatoes away, and I'm trying to remember the temp of a dehydrator -- 120 degrees? That's below the safe cooking temp of 140 degrees. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Buying from food clubs such as Costco means that you don't know where or how those tomatoes were grown and handled, and the same argument applies to fast-food, high volume restaurants such as McDonald's, Burger King and Chipotle, where they've removed tomatoes from their menus for the time being. Their source of tomatoes is big agribusiness. Should you decide to buy another box of tomatoes from Costco, please wash, wash, wash -- both the tomatoes and your hands. Soap, however, is not advisable for the tomatoes.

In a June 10 statement, the FDA issued its advice on tomatoes currently fit for consumption: cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached and tomatoes grown at home.

Post reporter Annys Shin has a front page story on the latest tomato developments.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 11, 2008; 8:26 AM ET Food Politics , Food in the News
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Well, the list says that tomatoes from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia are safe. That covers most of the farm market vendors I usually buy from. And, honestly, I may just be a risk taker because I had a sandwich yesterday with tomato from Cosi and did not feel the need to inquire about where they were grown. I think that most chains would not risk the liability and if they know that their tomato source is not one in one of the safe locations they have already stopped serving tomatoes altogether.

Posted by: Sweetie | June 11, 2008 11:48 AM

Okay, I know this is a really stupid question, but - only fresh tomatoes are affected, right? The canned ones are fine? I'm assuming the canned ones were processed long enough ago that there is no problem...

Posted by: Central Mass | June 11, 2008 12:18 PM

Hello Kim

I'm a devotee of Costco, because in Hawaii, produce shopping is limited. And I buy my tomatoes there. They are grown on Oahu, packaged in a plastic container with the name of the grower, $6.99 for two pounds, and they're pretty tasty.

Posted by: David Lewiston | June 11, 2008 1:06 PM

Even though my box of gourmet tomatoes from Trader Joes didn't have any of the kind of tomatoes that are supposed to make you sick, after eating them, my stomach wasn't too happy. I think I'm just going to steer clear of tomatoes (my favorite summer fruit!) until everything is sorted out.

Posted by: U street girl | June 11, 2008 1:19 PM

Washing the outside of tomatoes does not provide enough protection. Because the stem area is porous, water can go into the tomato. If there is poop and bacteria in the water, the whole tomato is contaminated...Avoid illness eat the safe varieties or cook all your tomatoes until the source of contamination is identified and eliminated. This info is especially important for kids, the elderly, and folks with chronic illnesses.

Posted by: BAB | June 11, 2008 1:35 PM

Kim, you said "farm worker or food handler who's not using soap and water after using the bathroom."

I'm pretty certain a couple people not using soap and water is not the cause of this massive recall. And if you go to that logic, farmer's markets might not be safer. I can't imagine asking a vendor at a farmers market if he or she washed before harvesting this tomato!

Posted by: md | June 11, 2008 1:50 PM

Costco spokesperson is quoted in Seattle PI that their tomatoes were not affected. Not sure if this was for whole country or only PNW region.

Posted by: anonymous | June 11, 2008 1:57 PM

Once again Americans go into a panic mode because we can't evaluate risk rationally. Take all tomatoes off the shelves! Call out the National Guard! Declare a War Against Salmonella!

Your chance of getting salmonella from the next tomato you eat are about the same as the chance that a piano will fall on your head as you walk down K Street.

Posted by: donnolo | June 11, 2008 2:25 PM tomatoes. Chick-fil-a, Mcdonalds, Taco Bell...etc were not serving tomatoes on their salads or sandwiches. We all need to practice more safety with our food and produce. I love Costco. Trying to Stay Cool in this 100 degrees heat wave. Good article Kim! thanks : )

Posted by: East Coast | June 11, 2008 2:37 PM

I ate out last night at a local restaurant and saw several tomatoes on our plates. Half were sent back and half were kept. What's the protocol? The restaurant said everything they put on their plates is safe, but that sounds a bit naive.

Posted by: Scared of restaurants | June 11, 2008 3:20 PM

growing my own this year or buying from the most local farmer there is(to me)-Charlie Koiner who grows his own close to downtown Silver Spring.

Posted by: andrea | June 11, 2008 3:38 PM

Md, migrant farm workers often don't have access to a bathroom. In addition, they get paid by the bushel, so if the bathroom is far away, they don't want to take the time to walk there. Using the bathroom in a field is a bit messier than using a toilet.

Posted by: mollyjade | June 11, 2008 4:28 PM

I'm amazed about how easily the general public scares and how little anyone cares about the facts. It's much easier to just panic instead of taking a little time to learn the truth.

I few have been mentioned here already.
Overall your chance of eating a contaminated tomato is small. It's probably not much risk for a healthy adult. Salmonella isn't going to kill anyone except maybe the very young, very old and immune compromised. I've had salmonella. It's not pleasant but it won't kill you.

As for the poster with the upset stomach....also not salmonella. If there's no vomiting and/or diarrhea you didn't get salmonella.

Small scale local grown is safe. The problem isn't an uncleanly worker. It's the big agro farms who irrigate from the same ditch that receives raw sewage from the feedlot just upstream...same story as with the spinach.

If it's cooked, canned, or processed with heat it's safe.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 11, 2008 4:57 PM

So, non-tomato gazpacho anyone?

Posted by: Fairlington Blade | June 11, 2008 5:23 PM

Hi Kim and other locavores!

Is this another example of government as nanny?

Can't wait for local tomatoes to hit the farmer's markets!

Posted by: Farmer Girl | June 11, 2008 5:42 PM

I LOVE tomatoes, but often get sick after eating them. I know it's not salmonella or any other strange contaminant. I think sometimes my stomach just reacts negatively to the acidity in the tomatoes--especially if I've overdone it. (Sometimes all it takes is just a couple a cherry tomato or two, but other times I do tend to go overboard on the nice heirloom tomatoes from the farmers markets.)

Posted by: acid no-no | June 11, 2008 8:38 PM

Kim, The FDA lists 27 states and most of Florida as 'safe', meaning that no disease has been reported. This is a negative indication of safety -- no one went out to examine practices there (except maybe in the listed counties in Florida, and that smells like a political stunt).

It might have been more helpful to list the other 23 states, excluding those that do not grow tomatoes commercially. It would be a shorter list. But the job of the USDA and FDA is, in part, to promote US agriculture; this explains the thinking behind their list.

Eventually they will extend the list to all but 1 or 2 tomato-producing states or counties. We depend on you, Kim, to identify the few remaining places and investigate.

Posted by: Solo Owl | June 11, 2008 9:34 PM

In the meantime, we can get our lycopene from watermelons. See Wikipedia's article "Phytochemical".

Posted by: Solo Owl | June 11, 2008 9:36 PM

I didn't know that watermelon was a good source of lycopene!

Posted by: thanks, Solo Owl! | June 12, 2008 3:16 PM

Just add tomatoes to the ever growing list of things that will kill us.
As a banquet manager, there is almost nothing that we can serve our guests anymore.

Posted by: banquet manager | June 17, 2008 3:33 PM

I don't know, I'm in Ohio... last night we had salad... I washed everything really well. Basic salad, Romaine hearts and Iceberg lettuce washed in cold water for at least 15 minutes, Some bacon bits, 2 eggs sliced after boiling, 2 Roma tomatoes that I just bought last week, and 2 vine ripened tomatoes and dressings... Well before we went to bed last my husband said he started having some heartburn, and so did I, almost like acid reflux, which I have, but salad is the last thing that sets it off unless I include onions or peppers. This morning my whole family had severe stomach issues, luckily my kids are older. We bought these from Kroger, I'm pretty sure it has to be the Roma tomatoes, but you would think by now they would only be selling produce that was safe? I think that I am going to a farmers market from here on out.... The weird thing about the Romas... they had no flavor what so ever. No breaks in the skins... just that and the skins were a little too hard.

Posted by: Mom of 2 | June 27, 2008 1:19 PM

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