Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Killer Tomatoes

The thing about most fresh produce is that it travels long distances and goes through a lot of handling. When we buy it at the store, we don't know where it's been or who it has been with. And then we rinse it with cold water and eat it raw.

Some of my friends from other countries think we Americans are crazy for eating vegetables without cooking them first. One friend from China once invited me over for lunch. She had steamed iceberg lettuce and put some black vinegar on it, it was delicious. I asked her if she had this lettuce at home. She said that she never tasted it before, but she figured out a way to eat it. I tried explain salad to her. It was disgusting to her.

I thought about that for a long time. Because my reaction to her reaction to salad was defensive. I trusted American agricultural procedures. I was raised in farming communities, my parents grew up on farms and I studied agriculture as a food science major. I knew about testing that was involved. I used to handle fresh produce and process it in my first job in the industry after graduating from college. I designed the sanitation procedures for the company. So, it was kind of personal, but not really. Not all produce comes from the U.S. these days. And not all companies, American or not, follow the rules. Corners get cut.

Right now, the big news is involving the larger varieties of fresh tomatoes. The grape and cherry tomatoes as well as vine ripened tomatoes (the kind I buy) are safe, but tons of the roma and big round tomatoes are making people sick. Just when tomato season started. I was planning to make gazpacho.

The germ involved is Salmonella. Salmonella is everywhere, but it is most highly concentrated in poultry. And Salmonella is mostly a danger to the elderly, the sick and the very young. A high concentration of Salmonella is inexecusable. It indicates a serious lack of attention to sanitation.

When consumers lose trust in growers and distributors, it would mean a departure from a common American way of life. I wonder how long before the days of eating salad as a normal and healthy practice will be over.

On the other hand, I am growing my own tomatoes this year. We are having a bumper crop of strawberries from our garden already.

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