Salmonella: Are Tomatoes From Local Farms Safer?

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.

And when produce is packed and shipped over long distances, there's more time for a bacterium like salmonella to colonize. Once the germs come in contact with a tomato, it takes about 90 minutes for them to attach themselves to the surface. Then, under suitable conditions, the colonies of microorganisms will eventually cover the surface of the tomato, says Kaletunc. If the tomato has any cuts or bruises, the salmonella can also grow inside the fruit, where it can survive even if the tomato is washed thoroughly.

Locavores insist that smaller farms have a safety advantage because they avoid the lengthy multistep packing and shipping process that is used by many corporate farms. "The produce is harvested by migrant workers, shipped to a processing facility, then a packaging facility, then a delivery truck and finally to a grocery store. There are just so many steps that contamination issues can and do occur," says Gary Cox, the legal council for the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.

Roberts counters that there's no real evidence that smaller farms are inherently more immune to contamination. "Regrettably, mistakes can happen along the line with any size farm. It's so difficult to have generalities, to say this is bad food and this is good food. The real key is for everyone to follow good safety practices."

But exactly what those practices should be and how they should be put in place is in question. On Thursday the General Accounting Office issued a report slamming the FDA for providing little guidance on how to fund or implement the food protection plan it introduced last November. The office also says the FDA has enacted only three of 24 GAO food safety recommendations. Lisa Shames, the GAO's director of natural resources and environment, said in testimony to a House subcommittee on Thursday that her agency had sounded the alarm about the FDA's problems in enforcing food safety in 1998. "A decade later," she said, "the story remains the same and has only taken on a greater sense of urgency."

Apart from the public health concerns, a produce outbreak can be devastating for agriculture-dependent states such as Florida, which produces an annual tomato crop valued at $500 million to $700 million and provides more than 90 percent of the nation's tomatoes at this time of year. The FDA said on Thursday that Florida was not a source of the outbreak, but the two-week period when some types of tomatoes could not be sold cost the industry millions in lost revenue.

In response to the loss, Florida officials have stepped in to create stricter measures on their own. Roberts says that the state has taken the lead nationwide by introducing the first mandatory produce safety regulations and record-keeping requirements on top of the more general federal guidelines, and that California growers are considering a similar move. The Florida regulations will be backed up by state inspections as of July 1. "With several outbreaks in 2004 and 2005, the industry in Florida said, 'We don't want to wait for someone else to craft something and have further outbreaks'," Roberts says.

Florida's new record-keeping rules may be key to protecting the industry in the future. Tracing contamination is much more difficult with produce than it is with a packaged product, like cereal, where there are tracking codes stamped on the box, says Roberts. It requires documentation at every stage, from where the tomato seeds were purchased to which labor crews were used to where the produce was sold or repacked. But the benefits are there for farmers, even if the paperwork seems onerous, says Roberts. "If there's a possibility you could be involved in some sort of outbreak, you want to be able to pull out a record and show that you were doing what you were supposed to be doing."

In the meantime, some wary consumers may decide to rediscover the pleasures of an old-fashioned backyard garden.