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Wednesday, July 16, 2008 02:29 pm

Tomato terror

How not to fall victim to hype about salmonella

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Here we go again. In 2006 it was Escherichia coli and spinach. This year it's Salmonella serotype Saintpaul and tomatoes — and, recently, jalapeño, serrano peppers, and cilantro.

It's certainly important for public-health agencies to find the source of the outbreak and for producers, purveyors, and consumers to take the appropriate precautions. It's equally important, however, to keep a realistic perspective about the situation and distinguish between facts and media hype. Is there any real reason to panic or completely quit eating these fresh vegetables?

As of this writing, 1,065 people have been infected with this particular strain; since mid-April, 205 have had to be hospitalized. The last case was reported on June 26. Two men from Texas died — one in his eighties and another in his sixties who had terminal cancer; that man's death was attributed to the cancer, but the infection may have been a contributing cause.

In a normal year about 40,000 cases of Salmonella poisoning are reported, although experts agree that there are many more; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 30 unreported incidents for every one reported. This is because most cases are mild and the symptoms and duration of the illness closely resemble those of the flu. Healthy people almost always recover, but for those at risk — the elderly, young children, infants, and people with chronic illnesses — it can be more serious. There are about 400 Salmonella-linked deaths each year.

Those yearly statistics mean that in two months (the time since the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak began) the U.S. normally sees approximately 6,666 reports of Salmonella poisoning and 666 deaths. That makes the Saintpaul infections a definite matter of concern but hardly a crisis.

Salmonella Saintpaul is not more virulent than most other serotypes, but it is rare. There are more than 2,500 types of Salmonella, but only a very few are responsible for almost all Salmonella poisoning. That rarity is what has led Food and Drug Administration and CDC experts to try to find a common origin for outbreaks that have occurred in 41 states and Canada.

As is the case with E. coli, Salmonella bacteria live and grow in the intestines of humans and animals. Vegetables and fruits are neither hosts nor carriers of either bacteria; any produce that spreads the infections has itself been contaminated.

"My best guess is that they'll find the source in one of two places," says Alys Adamski, an infectious-disease researcher at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

"Either it'll be someone — or probably a group of infected people — working in a packaging area or it'll have something to do with fertilizer in the fields if they're using manure." (It should be noted that only fresh manure poses any threat; properly composted manure is safe. Responsible farmers never use fresh manure as fertilizer.)

People's unsure recollections about when and what they ate and where they got it add to the complexity of the investigation. It doesn't help that tomatoes, hot peppers, and cilantro are often used in combination. Were they grown on the same farm? Processed and or packed at the same facility? Investigators are sure at this point that jalapeños (serranos are included because many people can't tell them apart) aren't the sole source of infections, because many victims have said that they didn't eat them or anything else, such as fresh salsa, that might contain them.

"We are quite sure that neither tomatoes nor jalapeños explain the entire outbreak at this point," says Dr. Robert Tauxe, CDC food-safety chief.

One of the things baffling investigators is the widespread, diffuse pattern of the outbreak. There have been reported cases in 41 states and Canada. Most, however, are isolated or in small clusters of five people or so, unlike other large-scale food poisonings where, say, everyone who ate at a certain restaurant or restaurant chain got sick.

Investigators admit that they may never be able to conclusively track down the source. They aren't even sure whether the culprits are domestic or imported. The biggest stumbling block to the investigation — and the reason the contamination probably occurred in the first place — is that recurring problem: the tangled web of sources, packaging, processing, and distribution that is today's industrial food production. Investigators have been surprised to find out just how far produce travels and how mixed up it gets in the process. It's called repacking: Suppliers and distributors repack boxes of produce to meet customers' (restaurants, groceries, etc.) requests, resulting in the mixing of produce from a variety of sources, imported as well as domestic, in repacked boxes. Repacking makes it difficult — if not impossible — to trace where the produce has been and determine where it was contaminated. There are even instances in which tomatoes grown, picked, and boxed in America are sent to Mexico, where they are sorted, repackaged, and sent back sporting stickers that say "U.S. Grown."

While health officials have been attempting to track down the outbreak's source, they have also been working to eliminate areas as possible suspects. Illinois has been completely cleared as a possible source of contamination.

In other words, there is no reason to avoid eating locally grown tomatoes, hot peppers, and cilantro!

These produce items also been declared safe in 41 other states, parts of Florida, and several other countries, including 28 of Mexico's 31 states. Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, and tomatoes with the vine still attached — no matter where they were grown — are OK, too. The FDA very sensibly suggests that stores and markets that label produce as "locally grown" might not be entirely truthful; ask questions and judge accordingly. Many farmers' markets — including our Springfield farmers' markets — require that vendors only sell what they themselves grow, making them a safe bet. Of course, homegrown produce is on the approved list, too.

So have no fear: As long as they're from around here, you can feast on tomatoes and hot peppers and cilantro to your heart's content. The local ones taste better anyway.

Additional information, as well as a complete list of states, regions, and countries whose produce is free of Salmonella Saintpaul contamination is available at www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/
tomatoes.html.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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