Tips on produce handling, salmonella

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The recent outbreak of Salmonella in fresh tomatoes should be a reminder that government agencies are doing a good job of protecting our food supply.

Fresh produce, including tomatoes, can become contaminated at any point along the supply chain, from the field or greenhouse where it is grown to distribution points to food preparation in restaurants and homes.

The federal government, primarily the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and state health departments work together to analyze samples from ill persons and samples of tomatoes, or other product in question, in an attempt to quickly identify the source(s) of the outbreak.

The FDA conducts a "traceback" investigation, tracking the product from the point of purchase or service, through each point in the distribution, to find the source of contamination. At each point in the distribution chain, an environmental investigation is performed to determine whether the contamination may have occurred at that point and, if so, how it occurred.

The FDA routinely collects random samples of tomatoes of all varieties, domestic and imported, from various growers, packers and shippers. The samples are sent to a FDA laboratory, to be analyzed for a variety of bacteria, including Salmonella.

Salmonella can cause fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Infection with Salmonella may be more serious or fatal in young children, frail or elderly people, and people with weakened immune systems.

The FDA does not recommend cooking tomatoes to prevent illness from the outbreak. When an outbreak occurs, it's best to discard the food in question, rather than to take the risk of becoming ill.

Fruits and vegetables that come into contact with Salmonella may become contaminated with it, causing illness if eaten. Salmonella lives in some animals, and can live in soil and water for months. Salmonella can be spread from surface to surface. For example, a tomato containing Salmonella can spread the bacterium to the cutting board on which the tomato is sliced.

Avoid buying and eating tomatoes that look damaged. For example, if the skin of a tomato is broken or the tomato is spoiled, the tomato should be thrown out.

However, contaminated tomatoes may look healthy, so safe handling is important for every tomato, as well as other types of fresh produce. Here are some tips for safe handling.

* Wash hands with soap and warm water before handling tomatoes.

* Wash each tomato thoroughly under running water and dry with a paper towel. Don't wash tomatoes in a tub or sink filled with water.

* When finished washing a tomato, cut out the scar where the stem was, and throw it away.

* Never cut a fresh tomato until it has been thoroughly washed.

* Cut the tomato on a clean cutting board, using clean utensils. Don't let the tomato come in contact with other raw foods or the surfaces they have touched. Wash cutting boards and utensils between each different type of food that is cut.

* Refrigerate fresh, cut tomatoes (or products made from them, such as salsa) at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or less if they're not eaten within two hours.

* Wash hands with soap and warm water after preparing the tomatoes.

The FDA does not recommend using any kinds of detergents to wash fresh produce, because it is not yet known if their residues are harmful to humans.

Editor's Note: Ann Ludlum is a K-State Research and Extension family and consumer sciences and 4-H extension agent assigned to Bourbon County. She may be reached at (620) 223-3720 or