Salmonella outbreak in tomatoes

Q. This recent salmonella outbreak has me really scared. The TV news report said that the outbreak was creating a "tomato panic" and no one is buying tomatoes. Some restaurants aren't serving tomato dishes until the outbreak is over. But the report didn't explain how salmonella is spread or contracted. The report showed a farmers' market, so the implication was that organic tomatoes were somehow involved. Is organic produce more susceptible to viruses like this?                                                - Pablo H, TX

A. Treehuggers, go ahead and breathe a big sigh of relief: organic produce is probably not any more susceptible to salmonella than is conventionally grown produce. According to Jay Dee Hanson, policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety’s Washington DC branch, organic tomatoes are actually subject to more stringent standards for manure control. “Organic growers have to use standards developed by the national organic standards board for manure,” says Hanson, whereas “conventional growers are subject to no standards for how they control manure.”

Why all this talk about manure? Unappetizingly enough, manure is how salmonella gets on or in tomatoes in the first place. Borne in human and animal feces, salmonella bacteria can attach itself to produce in any way that fecal matter can attach itself to produce. These ways include water runoff, improperly treated manure-containing fertilizer, the unwashed hands of laborers, packers, and preparers — just to name a few. The bacteria most commonly clings to fruit and vegetable skins, but it can also work its way under the skins through holes or tears. And of course, bacteria from one fruit or vegetable that gets onto a knife during slicing can spread to all subsequent produce sliced with the same knife.

The US Food and Drug Administration has been releasing outbreak updates almost daily on its web site, but  the Consumers Union (the nonprofit that publishes Consumer Reports) says it’s not enough. Consumers Union is now demanding that the FDA implement stricter food-protection practices. "The FDA has been under-staffed and under-funded for far too long," says Jean Halloran, CU director of food policy initiatives. "At the very least, the agency's budget for inspections must be increased so that it is visiting produce processing plants annually, not just once every five to ten years." Systems facilitating the tracking of produce backward from store to field would also be helpful now that "we are in a global economy," Halloran says, "with tomatoes from Mexico and fish from China for sale on a daily basis in our supermarkets. [The] FDA needs to be upgraded and modernized to meet these challenges."

- Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson

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