FDA Program Assesses Virginia Tomatoes

By Goody L. Solomon
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Ponder food safety, as we tend to these days, and tomatoes don't readily come to mind -- unless you are at the Food and Drug Administration, which launched a Tomato Safety Initiative in Virginia in July. The program will move to Florida during the fall growing season, with plans to reach other locales.

Its dual purpose is to find practices that might lead to contamination and devise ways to fix them. Twelve outbreaks with a total of 1,840 cases of food-borne illnesses linked to fresh and fresh-cut tomatoes have occurred since 1998, according to the FDA. Most were traced to Virginia's Eastern Shore and Florida, two major growing areas, and a few to Georgia, South Carolina, Ohio and California. Salmonella was the main culprit.

Under the initiative, teams of experts (from federal, state and local government; the produce industry; and a university such as Virginia Tech) visit farms and packing facilities to assess conditions such as water and animal proximity.

Because water can carry bacteria, investigators look at irrigation water, wells, chemical mixing procedures and the results of drought and flooding, said Jack Guzewich, a specialist in food-borne diseases at the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

"Animals can be anything from reptiles to birds and mammals -- the whole zoological garden," Guzewich said. "Feces get into land and water, and, in some cases, an animal comes in contact with the plant."

The expert teams have completed their Virginia visits. They went to more than 50 growing fields and three packing facilities. But the data have not yet been entered "to see to what extent patterns start to emerge," said Michelle Smith, an interdisciplinary scientist at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. The information will help the agency decide the best regulatory approach, she said.

The produce industry applauds this effort. "It will provide the FDA a sense of what is going on in the industry and provide the industry with input from the FDA directly on things to minimize risks and change practices," said David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology at the United Fresh Produce Association.

In contrast, Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, faults the FDA's reliance on voluntary performance. The CSPI has petitioned the FDA to mandate on-farm food safety plans dealing with such factors as manure uses, clean water and worker hygiene.

Goody L. Solomon is executive editor of the Washington-based Food Nutrition Health News Service.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company