By Kelly Pate Dwyer
The tale of the tainted tomatoes trails on this week as the number of people sickened by salmonella keeps growing, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues hunting for a source to the problem.
Since mid-April, 228 reported cases of an unusual form of salmonella—serotype Saintpaul—have been linked to eating raw red plum, red Roma, round red tomatoes or products containing one of these tomato varieties. Among those sickened, 25 people have been hospitalized.
The tomato outbreak has affected people in 23 states so far. New Mexico and Texas have reported the bulk of infections, though the FDA has said tomatoes grown in those states are safe to eat.
Most stores and restaurants nationwide have pulled tomatoes and tomato-based products believed at risk for contamination or for which they don't know a tomato's origin.
FDA has cautioned consumers against eating tomatoes grown in places other than those on its "safe list," posted at http://www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/tomatoes.html. The list includes countries, states and even specific counties from which tomatoes are considered safe.
A number of media reports have speculated that the tainted tomatoes were grown in Mexico, which so far does not appear on the FDA's "safe list."
What is safe?
Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes still on the vine have not been linked to any illnesses, the FDA says. Eating canned and jarred tomato products is also safe.
While some experts have suggested that people can safely eat contaminated tomatoes which have been cooked, to 155° F to kill the salmonella bacteria, the FDA is urging consumers, retailers and restaurants to throw away any potentially tainted tomatoes. Salmonella can spread from surface to surface via hands, utensils, cutting boards, sinks and other foods.
Salmonella lives in some animals' intestinal tracts, and it can live in soil and water for months, according to the FDA. The tomatoes in question could have been contaminated at any point in the supply chain.
The scope of the salmonella outbreak suggests one geographic region or commercial vendor is to blame. And perhaps that's why more consumers are turning to local growers in their home states. Still, the FDA cautions against eating any red plum, red round and red Roma tomatoes grown on farms in regions not yet cleared of contamination risk.
And unless tomatoes are grown in your own backyard, the FDA and industry aren't ready to say organic tomatoes are a safe bet.
Without knowledge of the salmonella source, the Organic Trade Association is asking retailers and consumers to follow the FDA's advice.
Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, has criticized the the FDA's ability to head off such outbreaks and is calling on Congress to allocate funding for the FDA to conduct more food industry inspections.
The FDA recommends following these guidelines when shopping for and handling any tomatoes considered safe:
- Don't buy or eat tomatoes that look damaged; for example, if the skin of a tomato is broken or the tomato is spoiled, the tomato should be thrown out.
- Stored tomatoes should not come in contact with raw meat, poultry, or eggs.
- Wash hands with soap and warm water before handling tomatoes.
- Wash each tomato thoroughly under running water. Don't wash tomatoes in a tub or sink filled with water.
- When finished washing a tomato, cut out the scar where the stem was, and throw it away.
- Never cut a fresh tomato until it has been thoroughly washed.
- Cut the tomato on a clean cutting board, using clean utensils. Don't let the tomato come in contact with other raw foods, including raw meat, poultry, and eggs, or the surfaces they have touched. Wash cutting boards and utensils in between each different type of food that is cut.
- Refrigerate fresh, cut tomatoes (or products made from them, such as salsa) at 41° F or less. (Note: Refrigeration will not kill salmonella.)
- Wash hands with soap and warm water after preparing the tomatoes.
The FDA does not recommend using any kind of detergent to wash fresh produce, because it is not yet known if their residues are harmful to humans.