Friday, June 13, 2008

Today's Tomato News

We can add a 229th victim and a 24th state to the numbers posted yesterday evening by CDC. Today, the State of Kentucky reported its first lab-confirmed case of salmonellosis caused by the outbreak strain of Salmonella Saintpaul. Fifty percent of the contiguous 48 US states are now part of this outbreak.

FDA has updated its list of tomato-growing areas again today, adding Indiana, New Mexico and – ironically – Kentucky to the "safe" list. Thirty-seven US states, several Florida counties, Puerto Rico, and a half-dozen foreign countries have been cleared by FDA investigators. Mexico and parts of Florida are still under suspicion.

This protracted outbreak investigation is having an impact on tomato growers, regardless of where they are located. Canadian growers are noticing that their sales are shrinking as domestic consumers avoid tomatoes, even though Canada is neither the source nor a victim of this outbreak. Mexican producers complain that their markets are drying up as US consumers shy away from purchasing tomatoes – especially theirs. Mexico says that the FDA has unfairly targeted that country's growers.

Eventually, whether or not FDA tracks down its source, this outbreak will burn out. But there have now been 13 US outbreaks of Salmonella traced to raw tomatoes since 1990. What is to prevent future flare-ups? One possibility is a research project underway at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

According to a Canadian Press report, researchers at Guelph are working on a way to inoculate tomato plants with a combination of Salmonella-specific bacteriophage – a virus that attacks Salmonella – and a species of Enterobacter that is harmless to humans. The combination of Enterobacter and the bacteriophage has been tested successfully on mung beans. The next step will be to find out whether it will prevent Salmonella from multiplying in and on tomatoes.

But, even if the research is a success, it will take several years before the approach could be widely adopted. In the meantime, we must rely on more conventional methods – or home gardens – to produce safe tomatoes for our garnishes and salad bowls.

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