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FDA Tomato Safety Initiative Seeks to Prevent Food Poisoning

Aug 23, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP

The Tomato Safety Initiative launched this summer by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is looking for ways to prevent food borne illnesses associated with fresh tomatoes.   The FDA started the program in Virginia this summer and will move it to Florida in the fall. The Tomato Safety Initiative will serve two purposes, said an FDA press release.  First, investigators will look for farming and packing practices that could encourage bacterial contamination.  Then, the program will try to find ways to improve those practices.  

The FDA says that since 1998, fresh and fresh-cut tomatoes have been linked to 1,840 cases of food poisoning.  Most of the outbreaks were traced to tomatoes grown in Virginia and Florida.  Just last year, contaminated fresh tomatoes served in restaurants were the cause of a Salmonella outbreak that sickened dozens of people in 21 states. The outbreak made at least 183 people ill.  There were no reports of deaths, although 22 people were hospitalized.  Another outbreak of Salmonella in 2004 that sickened more than 400 people was linked to tomatoes sold in Sheetz convenience stores.

The Tomato Safety Initiative is part of the FDA’s Produce Safety Action Plan.   It is a collaborative effort between the agency, and state health and agriculture departments.  Several universities and members of the produce industry will take part in the program.  As part of the initiative, experts will visit farms and packing facilities and evaluate irrigation water, wells, procedures for mixing chemicals, drought and flooding events, and animal proximity to growing fields.  Research will take an especially hard look at both water and animals near fields.   Farm animals like cattle, and even wild animals like birds or reptiles, can deposit waste on or near tomato fields.  Animal waste can runoff into water supplies and the contaminated water can carry bacteria into fields.  

The FDA said that the Tomato Safety Initiative investigators just completed field visits of more than 50 Virginia farms and packing facilities.  Now, they will begin analyzing the data from those visits to see what practices might be encouraging contamination of tomatoes by bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella.  Once such patterns have been identified, the FDA says it will be able to improve policies governing tomato growers and provide better guidance on preventing contamination.  

In addition to surveying farms and packing facilities, the FDA says other components of the initiative will include outreach and education to the industry; promoting research on tomato safety; improving communication with the public in the event of an outbreak of illness related to tomatoes; and building collaborative relationships with other state and local health officials to improve disease prevention, detection and outbreak response.


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