From produce aisle to checkout lane: All things grocery in Washington

Why are tomatoes getting infected with salmonella?

May 3, 2011 - 12:39 PM
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A recall has been issued for grape tomatoes from a California distributor for possible salmonella contamination. Six stores are voluntarily recalling products with these tomatoes in them, and though none of the recalls are in our region, it begs the question: How does a tomato get infected with salmonella?

“It used to be that salmonella was something you found in sick animals and chicken eggs,” says Jaydee Hanson of the Center for Food Safety. “What we’ve seen over the last 10 years is a significant increase in the number of recalls of tomatoes, of lettuce, of jalapeno peppers that have salmonella contamination.”

Tomatoes aren’t a natural host for salmonella the way birds, rats, and rodents are. But the way they’re handled, processed, and packed today has led to more infected produce, Hanson explains.

Faced with a contaminated tomato, Hanson would first look at how it’s washed at the plant. The wash water is the most likely point of contamination, as it usually comes from a well or tank that can have animal droppings in it. After the wash water, he’d look for actual rat or pigeon droppings on the plants. The last place he’d look is the field it was grown in, which could have been fertilized with poorly composted cattle manure.

The increase in infected produce can be explained partly by the way the tomatoes are packed. “Basically what’s changed is we are mixing together lots more produce from lots more places,” Hanson says. This allows a packing plant to cherry pick tomatoes that are all the same size and put them together in a more perfect, aesthetic package, but it also makes it extremely difficult to trace back to the farm where the salmonella is. Another problem: Hanson says the produce sits around in the plant longer than it used to before being packed, which means more chances for rats and pigeons to get their feces in the supply.

Once the tomatoes are packed, they’re often shipped long distances by truck. With people today getting their food from 1,000 miles away, Hanson, says, there’s a better chance that the truck broke down and sat in the hot sun, letting any salmonella pathogens grow for longer. Longer shipping distances also means a multi-state outbreak can occur more easily.

Current regulation of produce lags behind meat regulation. “Our meat inspection assumes meat is guilty before proven innocent,” he says. Meat inspectors are in the plants every day. A produce plant, however, can expect to see an inspector every four or five years, despite the fact that bad produce can get people just as sick as bad meat.

A few of these concerns were addressed by last year’s Food Safety Accountability Act, which requires inspection for high-risk facilities within the next five years and once every three years after that. Hanson would have liked to have seen stiffer penalties and stronger whistle blower protection, but he thinks the legislation is an improvement from previous regulation.

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