Tomatoes do carry 'special risks'

The recent salmonella outbreak in some raw tomato products is no reason to stop eating this nutritious herbaceous berry, though it is reason to be aware of the special risks associated with this product, says one food safety expert.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a nationwide consumer alert following a salmonella outbreak linked with the consumption of several varieties of raw tomatoes, namely raw red plum, raw red Roma and raw round red tomatoes.

While the first to extol the nutritional virtues of tomatoes, Jean Weese, an Alabama Cooperative Extension food safety specialist and Auburn University professor of nutrition and food science, says the berries nonetheless possess an Achilles’ heel — the stem, which can serve as a funnel for salmonella and other pathogens.

“When tomatoes are cut from the vine, salmonella and many other sorts of pathogens can get into that exposed part of the stem, commonly known as the stem scar,” Weese says, adding that even cracks along the stem sometimes can provide vulnerable targets for pathogens.

“Through the stem scar or even smaller openings, tainted water and other sources can seep into it and eventually contaminate the entire fruit,” she says. “It’s like breaking open a hermetically sealed package.”

Tomatoes aren’t the only vulnerable type of fruit, Weese says, adding that the stems of apples and grapes are also susceptible to contamination.

Other stemmed plants, such as watermelons and cantaloupes are not as susceptible, because the stems typically contract, allowing fewer openings for exposure.

With tomatoes, exposure could occur immediately following harvest, when they and other fruits and vegetables are soaked in cool water to delay spoilage. Exposure also may occur farther down the production line, especially during processing when additional water exposure typically occurs.

“There are just a lot of places where this vulnerable spot on the tomato can be exposed,” Weese says.

U.S. Food and Drug administrators currently suspect the recent salmonella outbreak stemmed from a single field, either in Texas or New Mexico, though it’s possible the problem may have been complicated farther along the production chain.

“It could turn out that the salmonella was on the surface of the tomatoes in the field but did not contaminate the interior of the fruit until the tomatoes were washed or processed,” Weese says.

Currently, FDA is advising consumers to limit consumption of tomatoes to the following types of tomatoes: cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached, and home-grown tomatoes.

Alabama-grown tomatoes are safe to eat and are on the FDA’s safe-to-eat list. The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries reports that state tomato growers have not been adversely affected by the salmonella outbreak. Alabama’s harvest season has just begun and ample supplies of Alabama-grown tomatoes are being marketed.

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