Salmonella Scare with Fresh Tomatoes


The salmonella-tainted tomatoes are not coming from homegrown tomatoes or tomatoes you would buy in any producer-only farmers market.

The wide distribution of the tainted fruits gives you the immediate cue that these tomatoes are coming from a big industrial ag farm/complex in one place (where they could be tainted in the field, or from handling/processing), and they are being dispersed throughout our industrial food complex by distributors.

These big industrial farm complexes do not send their employees to your local farmers market with a few crates of tomatoes–they grow on contract and their produce is generally sold before it is even planted.

However, some non-producer-only markets do allow folks to buy produce wholesale and re-sell it at their market–you might want to ask where the tomatoes come from before buying if you’re not shopping at a producer-only market.

Apparently there’s some confusion about whether or not all fresh tomatoes grown by anyone and everyone are tainted, as there was about the spinach and other leafy greens a couple of years ago. This is just not the case.

However, the more consolidated our food growing and the more far-flung our distribution system becomes, the more likely it is that outbreaks such as this will seem to occur everywhere at once, leading to this kind of confusion.

Produce is grown by a lot of people in a lot of different places–unless there was some world-wide toxic cloud of salmonella, the outbreak is coming from a specific place or places. Actually, if there was a toxic cloud of salmonella, we’d be getting it from the cloud, not the produce–produce generally gets contaminated by being in contact with contaminated animal feces either in the field or through lapses in hygiene during harvesting-transporting-washing-sorting-packing process.

This also does not mean that farmers who use manure in their fields as a practice of organic or conventional farming are necessarily causing the problem–farmers who use manure in their fields are generally pretty good about not spreading raw manure in fields where produce will be harvested in the near future.

Manure is an excellent fertilizer–but it must be handled properly. Farmers who use manure know aged manure (either aged in the farmyard or aged in the field before the crop is planted) is a better fertilizer, and they also know that using raw manure on mature or close-to-mature crops can hurt the crops and the people who eat them.

A farmer (well, certainly a small farmer) who poisons people will be shut down either by the government or by people avoiding his or her produce, and they will likely be sued as well. For a small farmer–carrying liability insurance may help them weather the financial repercussions of a food poisoning lawsuit, but it would not protect their reputation.

So, while at this point small, local farmers may not feed the world, there are certainly advantages to buying from someone local, someone you know. Not that it’s impossible for their produce to be tainted, but it’s a lot less likely because they have a lot more at stake in terms of producing a safe, quality product. They live in their communities, and they have to face their customers on the street–in their banks and restaurants and at their markets–every day.

If you are concerned about the safety of the food supply, you should encourage small, local farmers to produce more of the food you eat. You can shop at your local farmers market; you can organize with other concerned local citizens and form a Community Supported Agriculture coalition–hiring a farmer or farmers to grow food for you and your families. You can even try growing some of your own food.

Because all the regulation and government inspection in our country and others has not stopped these outbreaks. More regulation is not likely to help, either. What helps is when the people who grow food know the people who eat it, and they have a direct investment in the health and well-being of those people.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Cassandra on June 11, 2008 at 9:41 am

    The tomatoes may have come from industrial agro, but the salmonella spread occured strategically across the board. That, needless to mention, is as scary as it gets. There’s no way that could have happened without the guiding hand of a very nasty piece of work. Food security is definitely the top priority here. We need to keep our food healthy, safe and secure for all of us. The best way to do this is to vote McCain in the election, use proper cleansing procedures when handling and preparing food and make sure the food you put on the table is fresh and thoroughly cooked. We cannot afford to throw basic precautions such as these to the wind when the health, safety and welfare of our loved ones and children are at stake.

  2. Posted by flyingtomato on June 11, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    Cassandra–

    I do not believe that the salmonella spread was intentional (some sort of terrorist plot)–with the way our current food system works, this kind of outbreak is to be expected.

    If I were a terrorist (and I’m not, just to be clear), I would pick something much more deadly than salmonella, which isn’t particularly deadly except in young children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems (and even then it is often not deadly, if prompt medical attention is given).

    I fail to see how voting for McCain (or voting for anyone else who is likely to win) will make much of an impact on this kind of situation.

    In terms of proper cleansing–yes, that is good advice–though it is not particularly great for us to never be able to eat a raw piece of fruit or vegetable again.

    I would argue that creating and supporting local food systems as much as possible is a more effective way of ensuring the safety of our food supply than anything the federal government can, or is likely to do.

    –Rebecca

  3. Posted by Alan on June 11, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    Not at all. They aim for Americas most common crops and America is their target, so I see nothing wrong with supporting the common sense safety, health and security measures to protect Americas crops and food production, specifically in these openly vibrant times of war. Our families and our friends rely on us to provide this common sense protection on these most basic of grounds. McCain fully stands for these fundamental issues of our common safety and the safety of our children, so whether intentional or a medical health risk, the safety and security of our family and children are as important as it gets with us. There is no other way to go.

  4. Posted by Blane on June 12, 2008 at 1:33 am

    I smell monsanto, cargil, pig tomato added with lots of greed. How can this be a world event? Are all these growers adding raw manure at the same tme? If so what are the odds?

  5. Posted by flyingtomato on June 12, 2008 at 7:08 am

    It can be a world event because we have a world food system. Just as ag goods from this country make their way into the farthest corners of the world, so do ag products from other countries make it to us.

    A couple weeks ago, I was looking at “fresh” tomatoes in the supermarket, and they were from Bolivia. But, I guess if you want a tomato or other produce out of season, and you want it at a cheap price, then you’ll continue to be dependent on the world food system.

    It is probably not that the farmers are using raw manure, it is more likely that their fields or irrigation ponds have been contaminated by wild or domesticated animal feces. That’s what happened in 2006 in California with the spinach contamination scare.

    When you realize that most eggs and chicken grown on an industrial scale in this country have salmonella (pretty much all that chicken you buy in the grocery store), then you can start to understand why salmonella incidents and outbreaks are pretty darn common. I’d wager I’ve had it two or three times in my life–it’s generally just called “food poisoning” or “stomach flu” and you can get it from your local deli as easily as you can get it from spinach or tomatoes you buy in the grocery store.

    Actually, probably more easily, because the average Joe who works in a restaurant or deli has never had a food safety class or training of any kind. Any time someone puts lettuce or food meant to be eaten raw on the same shelf or below raw meat, you’re looking at a risk, and at this point, you have to assume that all raw animal products produced by our industrial food system are contaminated.

    This outbreak is not a conspiracy folks, it’s a direct side effect of the size and shape of our world food system (and we are a major part of it). The government isn’t going to save you, no matter who’s in the Oval Office.

  6. Posted by academickate on June 18, 2008 at 9:59 am

    [Appreciated your blog comment and got curious]

    Thank you for this post! I’ve been tossing around in my head if super-industrial food production is the root of the problem with widespread contamination like this, and I’m glad you’re saying something about it. Interesting that the issue gets framed as “we just need to avoid all tomatoes” instead of “wow, this may be a symptom of a really problematic way of relating to our food.”

    I’m totally inspired by what you’re doing with farming, by the way, and hope to get to someplace similar eventually…

  7. I was worried about my plants . I’m so glad that you put me at ease with that. I don’t add manure to mine, so I’m fine.

    Thanks!

  8. Posted by flyingtomato on June 21, 2008 at 9:30 am

    Jason–

    You absolutely can and should use manure in your garden if you have a local source of it. It is one of the best fertilizers there is, and it is safe to use as long as you don’t use the raw stuff on soon-to-be-mature plants.

    –Rebecca

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