Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

"Last year, more people were killed by automobile accidents, heart attacks, lung cancer, and natural causes combined than by any one tomato." -from the movie Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

In the 1978 spoof, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, mutant variants of this seemingly "docile" fruit stage a murderous revolt against humanity.

The current tomato crisis is no laughing matter.

When a Twitter friend from Texas mentioned that there were "no tomatoes at Mexican restaurant tonight due to statewide salmonella scare" I tossed off a joking remark and thought nothing more about it. I don't watch TV newscasts very often, and I had seen no relevant articles in any of our local papers.

When I read online yesterday that MacDonald's had stopped serving tomatoes in their fast food chain, I sat up and took notice. The small piece that appeared in our local paper didn't give much information, so I did a quick Internet search.

The Food and Drug Administration site was very informative. It described the situation, listed the varieties of tomatoes that are safe to consume, "
cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached, and tomatoes grown at home," and those that should be avoided "raw red plum, raw red Roma, or raw round red tomatoes." There is a list of areas NOT associated with the salmonellosis outbreak, and the FDA adds:

Consumers who are unsure of where the tomatoes are from that they have in their home are encouraged to contact the store or place of purchase for that information.

Consumers should also be aware that raw tomatoes are often used in the preparation of fresh salsa, guacamole, and pico de gallo, are part of fillings for tortillas, and are used in other dishes.

Restaurants, grocery stores, and food service operators have been advised by the FDA not to offer for sale or service raw red plum, Roma, or red tomatoes and products made from these types of tomatoes unless they are from one of the areas listed above.

It concerns me that none of this information was made available until two months after the outbreak began. Even in an "Age of Information," it's impossible to stay well-informed if key facts are concealed from the general public.

I'm not an alarmist, but I don't take unnecessary chances: I expect to be told about potential health risks.

I plan to take a trip to our local Farmers' Market this weekend, just to be on the safe side. Because Killers Tomatoes apparently come in all shapes and sizes.

"Tomatoes hanging overhead" by sylvar


Cathy Nelson said...

My sister in Charleston AND my husband here in Rock Hill both came down with a questionable stomach virus that had them in the bed for 2-3 days this past weekend. Sybil had to go to the ER for IV fluids. Both had eaten a sald about 6 hours before the illness (and both salads had tomatoes.) While no one in SC has officially said anyone around here has come down with Salmonella poisening, bith my sister and husband are convinced they had it. Im glad I don't eat any tomatos that are not home grown.

Oh and there is a children's book about the invasions of some tomatoes too, though I can't remember the exact name (maybe that is it) or the author. But it was quite cute.

40 said...

I saw on a Houston news station tonight that the person who died of salmonella poisoning here in Houston was actually a cancer patient. They ate pico de gallo and got sick.

You are right though that this country is so backward and the FDA is a total wreck. Hopefully our new president can lead us in a better direction in terms of public safety. Scary.

A Keeper's Jackpot said...

Just to offer an explanation as to why it takes so long for these reports to come out...

If the outbreak began in mid-to-late April, it can take 8-48 hours for an infected patient to show symptoms. Patients may wait a day to seek treatment. If the doctor orders a stool culture, at best it would take 24-48 hours for identification, and many labs require a different testing methodology to be performed for confirmation which can take more time.

Participating labs may send the isolate to larger labs for DNA finger-printing to see if they come from the same strain. (Basically matching up the genetic makeup to each other therefore showing that they are from the same source). There are also mixed in with the outbreak strain, Salmonella isolates from other random sources, so weeding out those may take time.

Meanwhile the health department may interview those with Salmonella to try to determine a possible source. Not everyone can recall what they had eaten in the days, hours prior to becoming ill, especially if it's a small detail like a raw tomato on a hamburger. If it's determined that there is a possible common food between the cases they then have to track back to what restaurant or grocery store, etc, the food products came from. Then to the distribution companies, and then the original farm.

In this case, it's a less common species of Salmonella, which I think may have helped speed the process up. If it were more common, it may have made pinpointing a problem with tomatoes more difficult, since there would be cases that didn't fit.

But it's still really lousy that it takes so long to get the important information. Technology, computer based programs, online databases, molecular biology, DNA finger-printing... They are getting closer to faster results.

Key to prevention is washing all produce if you are eating it raw, which of course you can't control as a customer in a restaurant. Other items known to be sources of foodborne illness are sprouts, strawberries, cantaloupe, scallions,leafy green veggies, unpasteurized or non-UV treated apple cider, unpasteurized fresh milk from the farm, and of course raw or undercooked meat.

Immunocompromised patients, such as young children, elderly, and those already battling a severe illness, such as cancer are at greater risk of death than someone who is relatively healthy. It should still be taken seriously, however, there have been cases of Salmonella causing autoimmune conditions, such as arthritis, where even though the infection is gone, the effects are long lasting.

But to keep you from getting too worried, I ate at least one and a half family sized jars of Peter Pan peanut butter before that recall and nothing ever happened to me :)

A Keeper's Jackpot said...

We had dinner at Davidson's tonight, there were raw large tomatoes on my veggie burger, guess they didn't get the memo or hopefully they came from the farmer's market :)

I picked them off

diane said...


My very knowledgeable daughter-in-law has provided us with some information as to why there is a time lag before the FDA issues warnings.

Cathy & Jackie,

An acquaintance of my husband's ate at a local restaurant and was hospitalized the next day. He has a confirmed case of Salmonella. Jackie, you were VERY wise to discard those tomatoes :-)