Are fresh tomatoes to blame for sickening nearly 870 people in 36 states and the District of Columbia, or is it something else?
Although a huge outbreak of salmonellosis--the largest ever linked to fresh produce in the U.S.--has dominated the food news for more than two months, federal regulators can't find where the outbreak originated. Indeed, the culprit may be an ingredient that accompanies tomatoes in such popular dishes as salsa and guacamole.
The Food and Drug Administration continues to caution consumers to avoid raw red plum, raw red Roma and raw red round tomatoes from specific areas. This advisory has led to drastic losses for tomato growers and the food industry as diners shy away from the fruit.
Other tomatoes--cherry and grape tomatoes, tomatoes on the vine, and greenhouse-grown tomatoes--appear to be safe. Also, tomatoes from most areas in Florida and all California--the No. 1 and 2 sources of fresh tomatoes in the U.S.--have not been linked to disease, the FDA says.
TOMATOES BACK ON MENUS
According to an informal poll from Special Events last week, half of respondents have put "safe" (that is, cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes on the vine and local tomatoes) back on their menus. Some 19 percent have taken all fresh tomatoes off their menus and have not put them back on despite the OK from the FDA of tomatoes from many regions. A total of 15 percent say they never took tomatoes off their menus, and 3 percent say they have put all types of tomatoes back on their menus.
The situation is akin to the 2006 outbreak of E. coli contamination linked to fresh spinach, which sickened nearly 200 people and killed three. Then, the FDA advised everyone to avoid eating raw spinach. It took months for diners to begin eating spinach again, even after the greens were pronounced safe.
To avoid possible illness, all raw tomatoes should be thoroughly washed under running water, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends. Cut, peeled and cooked tomatoes should be refrigerated within two hours. Raw tomatoes should be stored away from raw meats, raw seafood and raw produce, the CDC says, and all prep tools and surfaces must be cleaned regularly.
The National Restaurant Association's Educational Foundation offers a range of food safety training and certification options. To learn more about the ServSafe program, click here.
Photo by iStockphoto.com/ © Gustaf Brundin