Basic facts about the tomato scare

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 13, 2008

By ANGELA TREADAWAY / Guest Columnist

Just when we think we’re safe, another nationwide outbreak of foodborne-illness occurs to shake us out of our complacency.

The most recent involves three different varieties of tomatoes – raw red Roma, red plum and round red tomatoes.

As of June 11, these tainted tomatoes are believed to be the source of 167 reported cases of salmonella in 17 states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Following is a series of questions and answers dealing with issues of the most likely concern to consumers:

Are all tomatoes currently unsafe to eat?

No, only those types that have been identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: raw red Roma, raw red plum and raw round red tomatoes.

Why is the FDA including raw red round tomatoes on the list? Aren’t all tomatoes red and round?

A standard practice following an outbreak is to interview affected people.

Many affected people could report nothing more definitive than that the tomatoes were red and round.

Which tomatoes are considered safe?

The FDA is advising consumers to limit consumption of tomatoes to the following types: cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached, and home-grown tomatoes.

Are Alabama-grown tomatoes considered safe?

Yes. Alabama-grown tomatoes are safe to eat and have been placed on the FDA’s safe-to-eat list.

Are tomatoes any more susceptible to foodborne illness than other produce?

While widely considered to be a highly nutritious source of lycopene and other antioxidants, the tomato does possess two Achilles’ heels: a thin skin and stem scar, the part of the tomato severed from the vine. Through small lesions on the skin and stem, tainted water and other pathogens can seep in and eventually contaminate the interior of the fruit. The same holds true for apples, grapes and other stemmed fruits.

How could contamination have occurred?

Contamination could have occurred from something in the soil, from tainted irrigation water or from water used to bathe the tomatoes following harvest. Improper handling in the course of harvesting or processing could also prove to be the cause.

How common is salmonellosis?

Each year, some 40,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported in the United States.

Though Salmonella only accounts for about 10 percent of cases related to food poisoning, it is responsible for almost a third of deaths associated with foodborne illness.

Is there any way to prevent salmonellosis?

There is no foolproof way to avoid foodborne illness in fruits and vegetables but, as a general rule, all produce should be washed in cold running water before consumption, scrubbing the products gently with your hands or with a vegetable brush. In the case of vegetables such as cabbage and lettuce, the outer layers should be removed.