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Salmonella: FDA Looks Beyond Tomatoes

FDA Probes Foods Often Served With Tomatoes; Tomatoes Still Top Suspect in Salmonella Outbreak

How Safe Are 'Safe' Tomatoes?

The FDA's recommendations about what types of tomatoes to eat are all about where those tomatoes are grown and harvested.

But if safe tomatoes got washed, packed, or repacked in a facility tainted with Salmonella saintpaul, they could be contaminated -- and not so safe after all.

Some of the packing and redistribution centers that handled tomatoes from southern and central Florida and Mexico when the outbreak began are still handling tomatoes, including tomatoes from safe areas. If those facilities are tainted -- and there's no sign that they are -- FDA officials say they would take immediate action.  

 

Path From Plant to Plate

Al Wagner, a professor of food safety at Texas A&M University, says he's not scared to eat tomatoes. But he also says it's "amazing" that such problems don't happen more often, given the complexity of the produce pipeline.

For instance, a tomato might go from the farm to a packer, then be repacked with other tomatoes of the same size and ripeness from other farms, then go to a distribution center, then go to a major supermarket or wholesaler -- all in "a matter of days, weeks at the most," says Kathy Means, vice president of governmental relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association, a Delaware-based industry group.

All of those places are potential sources of contamination. That's why the FDA isn't just hunting for the source of the salmonella outbreak on certain tomato farms in Florida and Mexico, but in all the places where those tomatoes traveled after being harvested.

Sanitation a Key

"Packing sheds -- and how well they sanitize and monitor the water they wash produce in -- are a key point in tomato safety, notes Wagner.  

"If you do have some products come through that maybe have some contamination, if the water is sanitized properly, it's going to kill whatever organisms are there, so that subsequent fruit coming through there is not going to be inoculated," says Wagner.

Wagner's not blaming the packing sheds. "There are some that are doing an excellent job of taking care of that," he says.

But if packing sheds get lax about sanitation, that opens the door to problems.

"If the problem is at the packing house and if they are still packing tomatoes, then you could still have a problem," says Means.

"Say a load comes in that does have some salmonella in it, and it goes into the wash water. Then it's there and everything that comes afterwards" gets exposed, Wagner explains. "Proper sanitation would take care of that."

Tracking Tomatoes

The risk of getting a tomato tainted with Salmonella saintpaul is "minimal," says Means. But she admits that the system isn't perfect.  

The industry should use a tracking system, says Means, to trace where produce goes every step of the way from farm to table -- and to quickly pinpoint contamination sources when outbreaks arise.

Acheson agrees. Calling the salmonella investigation's pace "frustratingly slow," he said FDA investigators have been bogged down by industry records kept on paper. There is a "critical need," says Acheson, for industry to modernize its record-keeping practices.

Means predicts that the current outbreak will boil down to one farm, packing shed, or other source, since Salmonella saintpaul is such a rare strain that it's unlikely to appear in two places at the same time.

"It's going to come down to one thing, ultimately," says Means. "The faster we get to that one thing, the faster everybody can put the specter of bad tomatoes behind them."

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