How to Have Your Tomatoes, and Eat Them, Too

FRIDAY June 13, 2008 -- Next to wanting to know what's causing salmonella bacteria to contaminate tomatoes across the United States, the biggest question consumers have had during the past week is, "Do I have to stop eating tomatoes to make sure I don't get sick?"

Of course, the safest way to protect yourself from any food is to not eat it, but tomatoes and tomato products are so much a part of the American way of life that staying away from them completely may be extremely difficult.

And, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, some types of tomatoes have been found not to contain the Salmonella Saintpaul bacterium that has sickened 228 cases so far.

Safe tomatoes include ones you've grown at home, raw cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, and tomatoes with the vine still attached.

But protecting yourself against salmonella infection means more than choosing the correct type of tomato to eat.

The FDA has a number of suggestions in a question-and-answer format on its Web site:

What kinds of tomatoes should be avoided during this outbreak?

At this time, consumers should avoid eating or handling raw red plum, raw red Roma, and raw red round tomatoes. If consumers already have these kinds of tomatoes in their homes and are unsure where they were grown or harvested, they are encouraged to contact the store where they bought the tomatoes. Check the link on the FDA Web site often, because it's updating regions of the country that get ruled out as the sources of the outbreak.

What kinds of raw tomatoes could consumers continue to buy during this outbreak?

Consumers may continue to buy any type of tomato from sources that have not been linked to the outbreak. Raw cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, and tomatoes with the vine still attached have not been linked to the outbreak in any region, and consumers may continue to buy them. Tomatoes grown at home also are not linked to this outbreak.

Will washing the tomatoes identified in this outbreak make them safe to eat?

Consumers are advised not to try to wash raw red plum, red Roma, or raw red round tomatoes that are implicated in the outbreak. Throw these tomatoes out. Salmonella is very hard to wash off.

Can cooking tomatoes eliminate salmonella?

Consumers should not attempt to cook the tomatoes involved in this outbreak in an effort to kill salmonella. Handling tomatoes contaminated with salmonella can spread the bacterium to anything the handler touches, including hands, kitchen utensils, cutting boards, sinks, and other foods. Cooking tomatoes in the home will not ensure that salmonella is eliminated.

Are canned tomatoes and processed foods containing tomatoes safe for consumers during this outbreak?

Consumers may continue to buy and eat canned (that is, processed) red plum, red Roma, and red round tomatoes and canned or bottled foods containing these or other types of tomatoes if they were processed by a commercial food-processing facility. A few examples are the canned tomatoes and canned or bottled tomato juice and spaghetti sauce found in grocery stores.

Are tomatoes from farmers' markets included in this outbreak?

Farmers' markets get their tomatoes from a variety of sources that are not necessarily limited to local farms. These other sources may include the same ones that provided the tomatoes implicated in the salmonella outbreak. Consumers should ask retailers at farmers' markets what the sources of their tomatoes are.

How should consumers handle raw tomatoes not associated with the outbreak?

Again, the tomatoes associated with the outbreak should be thrown out. For tomatoes not associated with the outbreak, consumers should follow the usual recommendations:

  • Don't buy or eat tomatoes that look damaged; for example, if the skin of a tomato is broken or the tomato is spoiled, the tomato should be thrown out.
  • Stored tomatoes should not come in contact with raw meat, poultry, or eggs.
  • Wash hands with soap and warm water before handling tomatoes.
  • Wash tomatoes thoroughly under running water. Don't wash tomatoes in a tub or sink filled with water.
  • When finished washing a tomato, cut out the scar where the stem was, and throw it away.
  • Never cut a fresh tomato until it has been thoroughly washed.
  • Cut the tomato on a clean cutting board, using clean utensils. Don't let the tomato come in contact with other raw foods, including raw meat, poultry, and eggs, or the surfaces they have touched. Wash cutting boards and utensils in between each different type of food that is cut.
  • Refrigerate fresh, cut tomatoes (or products made from them, such as salsa) at 41 degrees F or less. (Note: Refrigeration will not kill salmonella.)
  • Wash hands with soap and warm water after preparing the tomatoes.

The FDA does not recommend using any kinds of detergents to wash fresh produce, because it is not yet known if their residues are harmful to humans.

More information

The FDA also has an excellent section on its Web site that shows you the best methods for handling raw produce.

Posted: June 2008


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