Sunday, June 15, 2008

Salmonella: Are Tomatoes From Local Farms Safer?

As the salmonella-tainted tomato outbreak continues to spread, small and local farm advocates say their produce is a safer bet. But experts aren't so sure.

You can't blame shoppers for being confused about which kinds of tomatoes are safe and where to get them. Nor could you blame them for wondering why health officials have had such a hard time containing the spread of salmonella-tainted tomatoes. The Food and Drug Administration reported on Thursday that the number of people sickened by the tainted tomatoes had risen to 228 in 28 states, and agency officials told a House subcommittee that scientists still hadn't pinpointed the source of the contamination.

What the FDA has been able to say is that not all tomatoes are suspect. Cherry or grape tomatoes are fine, as are homegrown tomatoes and tomatoes sold with a bit of vine attached. But that information doesn't do much to instill confidence in the nation's food supply in consumers, especially with this latest outbreak coming on the heels of last year's nationwide recall of spinach and peanut butter due to contamination. (You can find the FDA's summary of states affected by the outbreak here.)

Critics of big industrial farms say that the latest foodborne outbreak has given a boost to the local food movement, which promotes buying produce from nearby farmers (advocates are sometimes called locavores). And it's not hard to see why consumers might make the leap from thinking that if the FDA says homegrown tomatoes are OK, then tomatoes bought directly from small farmers might be the next best thing. "With each incident, it's pushing people more and more to buy locally and from family farms," says Craig Minowa, environmental scientist with the Organic Consumer Association, a group that avidly supports local, family farms. "So much so, in fact, that farmers' markets across the United States are recording record sales this year."

And it's true that the number of people buying from farmer's markets, food co-ops and small vendors is growing. The bulk of all produce consumed by Americans still comes from large growers and distributors, but the USDA reports that farmers' market and direct-to-consumer farm sales rose by almost 19 percent between 2004 and 2006. And this recent outbreak may be contributing to the trend. Karine Newborn, of Brooklyn, N.Y., says the tomato scare has definitely changed her shopping choices. "I only buy vegetables at the supermarket if I have to now. I'd rather wait 'til Saturday and go to the farmers' market, if can."

But is locally grown food really safer? Agricultural experts aren't convinced. "As a scientist, I cannot say smaller is better. It's just not that simple," says Martha Robert, a microbiologist at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and a safety adviser to the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California. "The large packers we have are extremely stringent with sanitizing techniques and measures to prevent cross-contamination, but if someone makes a mistake when they're mixing or dicing large quantities, the problem is going to be larger too," she explains. "But sometimes a small grower has been doing something for years, and [they] don't know they're putting themselves at risk."

While both large corporate farms and small local farms can be at risk of contamination at any stage of the growing, packing and shipping process, experts say some differences between big corporate farms and smaller farms can be a factor. Industrial producers are more likely to move their packaging plants close to, if not onto, the farmland in order to get the produce on the road as quickly as possible, says Gonul Kaletunc, associate professor in the department of food, agriculture and biological engineering at Ohio State University. In that situation, water contaminated with salmonella from feces, insects or plants might be used to both irrigate and wash the produce, increasing the chances of contamination.

Best advice is what I have said all along as the food supply is gets more and more unreliable, unsafe and tainted: do what you can to grow your own or become involved in a family, community or neighborhood garden.


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