Our first tomatoes of the season are just beginning to ripen, coinciding nicely with the multi-state cow poo in the roma scare. Allow me to speculate wildly about the cause of the current epidemic, tracing the cause step by step from the beginning:
1. We begin not with the tomato farm, but instead with manure from that wonder of industrialized agriculture, the concentrated feed lot, where thousands of cattle stew in their own filth. Immunosuppressed cattle on these feed lots act as ideal Petri dishes for all kinds of diseases including salmonella. At these massive operations, cattle feed on corn even though, biologically, they were meant to eat grass. To counter the deleterious effects of feeding them the wrong food, they are pumped full of antibiotics which, due to the evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest, creates new generations of antibiotic resistant infections. Concentrating them so close together further facilitates the spread of exotic strains of all manor of nasty things including salmonella.
2. Manure from the feed lot either runs off accidentally onto a neighboring tomato farm or is exported as fertilizer intentionally. At some point, manure gets on a tomato, either on the farm or after being shipped.
3. A salmonella infected tomato arrives at a centralized packing facility where it is loaded into a massive water bath by underpaid workers to mingle with thousands of other tomatoes. The water bath acts as our second salmonella Petri dish along the tomato’s path to our table. Alternately, a blade used to automatically slice tomatoes gets infected with salmonella, thereby spreading the bug to all the other pre-sliced tomatoes headed to the food assemblers (a more accurate term than “chef”) at America’s fast food establishments.
4. After leaving the packing facility, Salmonella infected tomatoes get shipped all over the country and perhaps the world, thereby sentencing thousands of people to multi-day commode-sitting hell. Some immunosuppressed folks, sadly, die.
5. The government announces, acting in the interest of the big agricultural players, “our food system is actually safer than ever”, and congratulates themselves for their quick diagnoses of the exact strain of salmonella and its source–in this case, tomatoes processed by careless workers at a packing facility. Hearings ensue, and a few months later they announce a new series of bizarre regulations. Tomato packing facility washing equipment must now be maintained at the precise temperature of 163º F for 5.375 minutes minimum. Problem solved. Mainstream journalists move on to the next hot topic.
Now I could be completely incorrect in my assumptions about this month’s tomato scare–it’s just a guess. But let me offer a few solutions that would take care of the problem no matter what caused this most recent outbreak:
1. If you can, grow your own tomatoes and make your own fertilizer. Yes, it’s possible (but a lot less likely) to get salmonella from your own home grown produce, but at least you and your family will be the only one infected.
2. Support small family farms. Again, a small family farm could cause a salmonella outbreak, but it would effect far fewer people. Decentralization at all points in the agricultural supply chain is the solution to greater food security, not further concentration. Unfortunately our government is on the take from the big players and promulgates regulations that make it impossible for small family farmers to make a living. Read Joel Salatin’s book, “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal” for more on how agricultural regulations are at the heart of our food safety problems.
3. Don’t wash produce until just before it is prepared. At it turns out, washing upsets the natural balance of harmful and beneficial bacteria present on fresh produce. Food microbiologist Keith Warriner has found that a beneficial bacteria called Enterobacter keeps salmonella in check. Wash off the Enterobacter and salmonella thrives (read more on this theory at New Scientist). The same holds for washing eggs–bad idea.
I count myself very fortunate to have a bit of land to grow some tomatoes and feel sorry for those who don’t have this luxury. I wish more journalists would spin this story as a reason to build more community gardens and allow apartment dwellers to grow some food on the roof. It leaves me eating that big juicy roma tomato, pictured above, with all the smugness of a Prius driver in the HOV lane.