Natural Foods Merchandiser

FDA tackles salmonella in tomatoes

tomatoesThe Food and Drug Administration is taking on salmonella, but not in the places consumers might usually expect to find it. The Tomato Safety Initiative, launched in Virginia this summer and continuing afterward in Florida, is the FDA's response to recurring salmonella outbreaks associated with fresh and fresh-cut tomatoes. Followed by lettuce, tomatoes top the FDA's list of outbreak-causing produce. More than 1,800 confirmed cases of illness have been linked to fresh and fresh-cut tomatoes in the past 10 years.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that in 2005, tomatoes contributed 7 percent to 10 percent of total supermarket produce department sales.
The initiative is part of the FDA's strategy of reducing food-borne illnesses by focusing on specific products, practices and growing areas that have been linked to food-safety problems in the past. Since most tomato-associated outbreaks in the last decade have been traced to the East Coast, from Virginia to Florida, FDA investigators are teaming with their state counterparts in those areas to visit tomato farms and packing facilities, assessing food-safety practices and use of good agricultural and manufacturing practices.

"Typically, when a product has been implicated [in an outbreak], by the time it's traced back to the farm, there's not much you can see because the farm is out of production," said Samir Assar, science policy analyst for the FDA. "This is an opportunity to watch during production, a proactive approach to see what conditions are there."

During their visits to farms and packing facilities, officials evaluate irrigation water, wells, chemical mixing procedures, drought and flooding, and animal proximity to growing fields.

"The FDA is studying common growing practices in the hope of better understanding what's associated with safe products, versus what's associated with an outbreak," Assar said.

As far as new guide?lines or rules for the industry, nothing is in the pipeline yet, according to an FDA spokesman. But he said the observations might contribute to honing policy in the future, namely improving guidance documents for farmers and producers.

The average American consumes 18 pounds of tomatoes every year, according to the Florida Tomato Committee.
Charles Margulis, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety, said it's nice to see the agency working with the industry on the food-safety problem, "but we want a comprehensive and binding regulation. Until the industry has a government standard that it's required to achieve, we'll continue to see recalls."

One state, though, is taking food-safety rulemaking into its own hands. Earlier this year, at the urging of local growers' groups, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill instituting food-safety regulations for all aspects of tomato growing in Florida. The draft rule is nearing completion and the state department of agriculture expects the new regulations to go into effect next July. Florida's harvest accounts for about 50 percent of the domestically produced fresh tomatoes in the United States.

As for the FDA's research efforts, Mark Lipson, policy program director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation, said the increased focus on the farm and production level might lead to a wider understanding of the ecological context of food-borne pathogens. "Pathogens are in the environment; they're endemic," he said. "Trying to kill them between the shipping dock and the produce rack is a very inefficient strategy." Lipson said the new research could be a good thing, as long as the FDA sticks to pursuing problems that affect safety, such as concentrated animal feeding operations and workplace sanitation.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 11

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