More bad news on our plates: tainted tomatoes

McDonald's is pulling tomatoes from its menu and informing customers with notices such as this one at a store in Los Angeles.
REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
McDonald’s is pulling tomatoes from its offerings and informing customers with notices such as this one at a store in Los Angeles.
Wednesdy, June 11, 2008

Until recent years, the subject of food was pretty much restricted to the recipe columns or the restaurant reviews toward the back of the papers, but now food news — usually bad news — is showing up on the front page.

Two years ago it was contaminated spinach; now it’s tainted tomatoes, probably from Mexico.

So far, 167 people have fallen ill because of a salmonella outbreak in a current crop of red plum, red round and red Roma tomatoes. Growers in Florida, the largest producing state, were relieved on Tuesday when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared much of the state from culpability, although losses could total as much as $40 million because picking and packing were halted on Saturday, dooming much of the crop.

As a precaution food markets in a score of states, from California to Virginia, pulled some tomatoes from their bins, and major restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King said they are leaving tomatoes off of their sandwiches and salad bars. The tomatoes in question are dangerous only if eaten raw. Cherry, grape and on-vine tomatoes are not directly affected. Still, as with the e coli spinach problem of 2006, some consumers may choose to avoid all raw tomatoes for a period of time.

“The reality is that the entire tomato industry is being impacted,” said Ed Beckman, president of the California Tomato Farmers. “It wasn’t really clear that round and Romas from California are safe to eat. That’s part of the problem.”

Painstaking process of elimination

Indeed, tracing back to the source of the contamination is a process of elimination for federal investigators. For this outbreak, that process began in late April and didn’t result in a national alert until last week. It’s a painstaking process that inevitably leaves growers and consumers in the lurch.

Florida had been an early target because it produces 90 percent of tomatoes consumed by Americans this time of year. But Mexico, which last year exported to the U.S. a crop valued at $900 million, appears the most likely source.

A report on PBS’ News Hour said the specific contamination probably happened when tomatoes were washed in water that had been laced with reptile or amphibian feces. The strain, Salmonella saint-paul, is a rare form of the bacteria. Sickness begins three days after ingestion and lasts up to a week. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea and stomach cramps. Most people do not require hospitalization. Those endangered most are the very young, the elderly and those with damaged immune systems. One death has been reported, that of a cancer patient in Texas. Most of those infected have been from Texas and New Mexico. Other confirmed cases have been reported in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, Washington and neighboring Wisconsin.

Though no outbreaks have been reported in Minnesota, grocers are taking precautions. Mississippi Market, which has two natural food co-ops in St. Paul, wrote this on its website: “While the Co-op is confident that our certified organic roma and round slicer tomatoes from Mexico are grown and handled with high standards and care, we will be discontinuing their use in our produce department, fresh deli and sandwich production until the FDA can confirm their safety.”

Mexico supplies the U.S. with about 84 percent of its imported tomatoes, and already Mexican growers are feeling the effects. “U.S. consumers are started to reject orders that have already been promised or sent and it is causing a lot of damage,” Mario Robles, an official with the vegetable association in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, told the Reuters news agency. Exports of Mexican food products soared after the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) passed in 1994. But, said Reuters, the benefits can easily be wiped out by a sanitary scare like this one, or like the 2000 salmonella infection of Mexican melons.

‘Running scared’
The toll on U.S. side of the border is heavy, too, as consumers lose faith in and confidence in the government’s food safety system. “You’re always running scared,” wondering whether the food is contaminated by bacteria, genetically modified or sourced from areas with poor health and safety records, Arjuna Balasooriya, a banker from Pasadena, Calif., told Reuters as he emerged from a restaurant on Tuesday.

“I don’t plan to buy any [tomatoes] until the problem is fixed,” Larry Davidson, an insurance underwriter from Chicago, told Reuters. Reports of tainted spinach, peanut butter, pot pies and fast-food hamburgers, as well as pet food and toothpaste imported from China and pre-marketed beef infected with mad cow disease have caused jitters in recent years.

A new poll by Deloitte Consulting points to growing concerns. Of 1,100 respondents, 76 percent said they were more worried about food safety now than they were five years ago. Seventy-three percent said they believe the number of food-related recalls have risen in the past year. Fifty-seven percent said they stopped eating a particular food — temporarily or permanently — following a recall.

There have been 13 tomato-related salmonella outbreaks in the U.S. since 1990.

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