With salmonella outbreak, take proper care of tomatoes
by Diane Sagers
Jun 17, 2008 | 730 views | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Care for fresh tomatoes properly when preparing foods. Before cutting them,
inspect for broken skin or signs of spoilage, cut the stem scars and use clean
cutting equipment and cutting boards.<br>-- photography / Diane Sagers
Care for fresh tomatoes properly when preparing foods. Before cutting them, inspect for broken skin or signs of spoilage, cut the stem scars and use clean cutting equipment and cutting boards.
-- photography / Diane Sagers
I recently went to a popular fast-food place to purchase a sandwich and found that they were not putting tomatoes on their sandwiches. It was disappointing, but certainly understandable considering the recent outbreak of salmonella poisoning. They simply had made the decision to completely avoid the problem until it is completely resolved.

Perhaps it is warranted, but the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already cleared produce from many areas.

They began by issuing warnings nationwide to consumers that the salmonella serotype Saintpaul -- an uncommon type of salmonella -- has been linked to eating certain fresh tomatoes, specifically raw red plum, red Roma, round red tomatoes and products containing these raw tomatoes.

Since mid-April, 228 cases of salmonellosis have been reported nationwide. At least 25 hospitalizations have been reported.

The FDA is currently investigating the source of the outbreak in an effort to pin down the precise place or places that are infected. In narrowing down the sources, they have already ruled out a large number of areas that are not associated with the outbreak. Utah is one of them, as are most other states with cold winters. That isn't too surprising since they won't be producing field-grown tomatoes for some time yet and apparently the greenhouse-grown ones are safe.

Many Southern states, counties within other Southern states, and parts of Mexico and Puerto Rico have been ruled out as sources of the contaminated fruits.

As of last Saturday, the FDA recommended avoiding raw red plum, raw red Roma or raw round tomatoes that are grown anywhere but in the states or areas of Mexico and Puerto Rico that have been cleared by their investigation.

What that means to consumers is that if you purchase tomatoes, you should know where they come from. Keep in mind that the products like salsa, pico de gallo and similar foods also contain raw tomatoes.

However, the FDA goes on to say that you can eat cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes with the vines still attached as they are safe from contamination. You are also safe to eat the ones you grow in your home garden. That may be an extra incentive for growing a garden this summer.

So how do you handle raw tomatoes? If the tomatoes are associated with the outbreak, throw them out. Washing them will not remove the salmonella. It has physical properties that make it difficult to remove once it is present on a tomato and conventional cleaning methods are not likely to completely eliminate it. The potential for cross-contamination is also high.

Cooking the produce is not fool proof either. However, eating commercially canned tomato products is safe since the canning process heats the fruit to high temperatures for extended time periods effectively destroying the salmonella.

If you are sure you have tomatoes not associated with the outbreak, care for them properly. Some of the suggestions are obvious but a reminder is in order.

* Do not buy or eat tomatoes that look damaged. If the skin is broken or the tomato spoiled, toss it.

* Do not store tomatoes where they will contact raw meat, poultry or eggs.

* Wash your hands with soap and water before handling tomatoes (or any food for that matter.)

* Wash each tomato thoroughly under running water. Do not wash tomatoes in a tub or a sink filled with water.

* After you wash it, cut away the scar where the stem was, and throw it away.

* Then cut the tomato for use. Never cut a fresh tomato before it has been thoroughly washed and the stem scar removed.

* Use a clean cutting board and 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. Food poisoning is often spread by cutting raw foods with contaminated utensils or on contaminated surfaces.

* A refrigerator is your friend. Keep cut tomatoes and foods made with them in a fridge at 41 degrees or lower. This will not kill salmonella, but it does help keep it from growing and spreading.

* Wash your hands with soap and warm water after preparing the tomatoes.

The FDA does not recommend using any kinds of detergents to wash fresh produce, because it is not yet known if their residues are harmful to humans.

The FDA is also telling restaurateurs, food service providers and others that they can continue to provide fresh tomatoes as cherry and grape tomatoes and those purchased from the places that have already been cleared.

The process of finding the source of the infection is a collaborative effort between the FDA and state Food and Drug Administrations nationwide. It is not just a simple matter of finding where they were grown. The infection could take place anywhere along the path from the ground to the consumer. It could come in the fields, the packing areas, the shipping areas, or preparation areas. All of these must be checked. However, the investigators have been able to rule out many sources and the supply lines they use to get them to market.

The FDA also regularly does random samplings of produce throughout the country keeping an eye out for potential problems. Such outbreaks as the current one have happened in the past, although not on such a wide scale as this.

A year ago, the FDA, in collaboration with state health and ag departments in Virginia and Florida and several universities and the produce industries began a research and education program.

They are working on a multi-year strategy to reduce foodborne illnesses by focusing on products, practices and growing areas that have had problems in the past.

Retailers are taking care to check their sources of tomatoes and as the investigations continue consumers can adopt a watch and wait attitude and be careful in choosing the foods they will eat.

For more updated information on this topic, visit the FDA Web site at www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/tomatoes.html.

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