Although they were once called “poison apples” by early European explorers, fresh tomatoes have become a dietary staple both here in the US and abroad. The main problem with the fruit, however is that it can be very vulnerable to salmonella, although researcher are not sure why. In fact there were 15 multi-state outbreaks of the contamination between 1973- 2010 (with most occurring since 2000). According to the CDC, these resulted in approximately 2,000 confirmed illnesses and three deaths, “with states in the eastern U.S. hardest hit.”
As a result, the FDA has turned to “Team Tomato,” a special group of researchers assigned with the task of solving this enigma and putting an end to it.
"The conditions in which tomatoes thrive are also the conditions in which Salmonella thrive," says Eric Brown, Ph.D., director of FDA's Division of Microbiology. "But the tomato always presented an extra challenge because it is so short-lived. By the time it looked like contaminated tomatoes could be causing illnesses, the harvest would be gone."
As a result the FDA has joined forced with the Department of Environmental Protection to develop an organic treatment containing Paenibacillus, a bacteria known to be a natural enemy of Salmonella organisms (but harmless to humans), to protect crops.
“This will be a particularly valuable Salmonella-fighting tool in the mid-Atlantic region, where farmers often fumigate six inches down into the soil to kill harmful bacteria,” emphasized Rebecca Bell, Ph.D., a microbiologist with the FDA and Team Tomato member, who noted that this practice however, may actually “create more opportunities for salmonella and other enteric pathogens (gastrointestinal organisms spread by contamination of food), to colonize in the roots of the tomato plants.”
In the meantime, David Gombas, Ph.D., senior vice president of the United Fresh Produce Association, noted that the tomato industry is working closely with the government agencies to improve food safety, including adopting special guidelines known as the “Tomato Metrics” for farms (including greenhouse operators), and packers.