Food Fables Friday: Tomatoes; the World Prize

It is time for me to resurrect my Food Fables Friday feature. (I do like alliterations.) Like the knitting project days (WIP Wednesday and FO Friday) FF Fridays will be posted when I have food news to share. Hopefully more often than in the past year. If you see any items you would like to be discussed in more detail add a link in the comments. Comments are sent to my email, so I know when they have been posted even it it is years after the blog post went online.

This week’s food news:

  • More on the Tomato and Salmonella outbreak
  • The 2008 World Food Prize winner were announced today

More on the tomatoes and Salmonella scare:

Barfblog reports that the number of people affected has increased to 228 in 23 different states with 25 hospitalizations. The last date some one reported getting sick was June 1 so it still is not clear if the contaminated tomatoes are all out of the circulation yet. You would hope so as tomatoes have a relatively short shelf life, but they can be stored in the right environment for longer than they last in our fridges or on our counter tops. There is still no news as to the source of the outbreak. Unsurprisingly there has been criticism leveled at the FDA for their slow response time and but as this NYTimes editorial points out:

To do its job, the agency [the FDA] is going to need even more resources — to hire more inspectors — and more authority, including to inspect farms. The country also needs a better way to trace exactly where food comes from — a “trace-back system” — so that health officials can identify the source of contamination quickly.

The FDA is notoriously underfunded and understaffed. Despite that fact that it regulates 80% of the food supply, the USDA does the rest, the FDA only gets 24% of the available money (ref). In a NYT opinion, Bad Cow Disease, Paul Krugman reminds us that over the last 20 years the FDA has been given more and more responsibilities; for example, Nutritional Labeling, Dietary Supplements, increased food imports while having a smaller workforce:

For example, the work of the F.D.A. has become vastly more complex over time thanks to the combination of scientific advances and globalization. Yet the agency has a substantially smaller work force now than it did in 1994, the year Republicans took over Congress.

The administration is not helping by appointing people to run the food inspection branches of the FDA and the USDA who have close ties with the food industry, giving the impression that the industry bodies are running the show:

Thus, when mad cow disease was detected in the U.S. in 2003, the Department of Agriculture was headed by Ann M. Veneman, a former food-industry lobbyist. And the department’s response to the crisis — which amounted to consistently downplaying the threat and rejecting calls for more extensive testing — seemed driven by the industry’s agenda.

One amazing decision came in 2004, when a Kansas producer asked for permission to test its own cows, so that it could resume exports to Japan. You might have expected the Bush administration to applaud this example of self-regulation. But permission was denied, because other beef producers feared consumer demands that they follow suit.

It is important that the food supply is safe but it is also important to put it all into perspective. Considering that the US population is over three hundred million and an average 81 people in the US die daily from gunfire and 40,000 people died in car crashes in 2004, getting sick from food is a low risk. Just uncomfortable at the time.

The World Food Prize: 2008 Winners Announced

Robert Dole and George McGovern were honored today by the announcement that they had won the 2008 World Food Prize. The ex-Senators were awarded this prize because of:

their inspired, collaborative leadership that has encouraged a global commitment to school feeding and enhanced school attendance and nutrition for millions of the world’s poorest children, especially girls.

Called the Nobel Prize for Food:

The World Food Prize is the foremost international award recognizing — without regard to race, religion, nationality, or political beliefs — the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.

It is great that the prize will be awarded, the ceremony is in October, to people who collaborated to encourage a different way of thinking about the food supply, so children get food and receive education at the same time.


Salmonella in Tomatoes

So I have been working hard at writing a lecture I am giving next week as part of our continuing education series and I totally missed the latest food scare of Salmonella in raw tomatoes until a friend just asked about it. I’m writing about Food Science for the Non Food Scientist and I totally missed this story. Hits head with hand and groans.

Unripe Tomato on the vine

Raw tomatoes, especially raw Roma, have been implicated in an outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul, which seems to be a particularly nasty version of Salmonella. Before you stop eating tomatoes NOW be aware that many types are not implicated in this outbreak. From the FDA:

The following types of tomatoes listed below are NOT likely to be the source of this outbreak.

  • cherry tomatoes
  • grape tomatoes
  • tomatoes sold with the vine still attached
  • tomatoes grown at home

The FDA also lists states from which tomatoes have been grown and harvested which are NOT associated with the outbreak.

One of my friends asked me for the solution and I said cooking the tomato would solve most of the problems. It seems that the FDA does not agree with me and recommends throwing away suspect tomatoes. There have been 12 outbreaks since 1990 that were associated with tomatoes, making up 17% of produce outbreaks.

It is interesting to consider where the problem might occur. Obviously, contamination can occur at anytime during the growing and processing of tomatoes, but how are fresh tomatoes processed?

Well, forget your ideas from home grown tomatoes. Most tomatoes grown commercially are determinate varieties which means all the fruit ripen at the same time. So the harvest can be fully mechanized – there is a mechanized harvester which cuts down the plant and shakes it to get the tomatoes to fall off. These are then sent to the processing plant where they are washed, graded and then stored at quite a high temp to prevent damage and poor flavor development. Some tomatoes are grown using a hydroponic system, which means that they are mineral rich solution instead of in soil.

It is still not clear whether Salmonella ended up inside the tomato, like E.coli O157 H7 did with the spinach. While for spinach, this was an clue to the source of contamination (cultivation water supply), the same cannot be said in this case as fruit such as tomatoes continue to take up water through the stem scar even after harvest.

Looking up for more information I came across this interesting blog: “Barfblog: Musings from the International Food Safety Network” where they have daily updates about the recent tomato scare. I have added it to my blogroll for future reference.