Why Tomatoes Hate America

To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to -- as Rep. John Shimkus discovered, food safety is a headache, no matter how you slice it.
To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to -- as Rep. John Shimkus discovered, food safety is a headache, no matter how you slice it. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)
By Dana Milbank
Friday, June 13, 2008

The tomatoes attacked us brutally and without warning. Yesterday, our leaders struck back against the pernicious produce.

"As we hold this hearing, grocers and restaurants nationwide have been pulling tomatoes from the shelves and menus," announced Rep. John Shimkus, the ranking Republican member of the House Commerce subcommittee assigned to skewer the tomatoes.

One hundred sixty-seven people have been sickened by salmonella-tainted tomatoes -- and that's not the worst of it. "I tried to get a BLT sandwich in the cloakroom yesterday, and no tomato!" Shimkus recounted. "I had a BL sandwich."

Now THIS is war! And the more they talked about it, the more members of the panel realized that the Global War on Tomatoes would have to be broadened. Other freedom-hating foods are trying to kill us, too.

"We can see tomatoes, spinach, grapes, mushrooms, seafood and dozens of other items which have gone on to poison and sicken the American consumer," complained Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).

"Jars of Peter Pan peanut butter containing salmonella, cans of green beans containing botulism, spinach tainted with E. coli, poisoned pot pies," rejoined Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). "The largest meat recall in the history of our country. . . . Salmonella was found in Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat cereals. . . . Tainted cantaloupes."

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) was losing her appetite. "The longer you sit on this committee, the more depressed you get, because the issues never get resolved and crop up again and again," she said, betraying no sign that her "crop" pun was intentional.

It was one of the scarier moments in horticulture since the 1978 B movie "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes," in which mutant fruits turned against humanity. And there was no escaping the horror yesterday, even on lunch break in the Rayburn cafeteria downstairs from the hearing room. "Because your health and safety is our first priority, we have followed the FDA warning by removing the tomato varieties of concern," a sign above the salad bar announced.

Without doubt, the man feeling most strained by tomatoes yesterday was David Acheson, the food safety chief at the Food and Drug Administration. And Acheson, whose British accent makes him sound aloof to begin with, made the mistake of quarreling with his questioners.

"Fresh produce, like spinach -- how many outbreaks have we had with that?" demanded the subcommittee's chairman, Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).

"Two," Acheson replied.

"Man," the chairman continued, "the last 10 years, I think there's been like eight."

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