Dookie in the Tomatoes

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.

Leave a comment


  1. But where would I find the time and space to grow my own food? Don’t you know how long it takes to plan every moment of my four children’s lives? And don’t even ask how long I spend washing my Ford Excursion. Besides I don’t even have a decent size lawn what with my 3500 square foot home on a measly 5000 square foot lot.

  2. Well put. Nice piece of writing- lays out the whole whopping mess quite tidily. Our Big Ag food system is broken, and looks like it’s gonna take us down in the grassroots to fix it.

  3. Or maybe this: (either way icks me out)

    I still don’t have any flowers on my plants yet; I planted late (in between my ‘episodes’). But even though I’m not a good gardener, they’re fairly perky, and well-watered. I might get to eat raw tomatoes, without fear of death, some time soon.

  4. 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.

    Well maybe… except that the tomatos you’re talking about are covered in pesticides, so no “natural balance” for you!

    Great post.

  5. I’m really bummed out about this. I eat a tomato every day and now I’m too worried about buying any. I have to find some sunny place where I can plant some for sure.
    Btw. I have green peppers again from seeds I planed two years ago. I love it!

  6. Absolutely spot on… you could extend the theory into looking at agricultural subsidies also when looking at who is in who’s back pocket…

    I love the sarcasm in agroman’s post too 😀

  7. I am very curious on your thoughts on a somewhat similar question/quandary.

    Last winter, I turned a portion of my yard into a small garden, here in S. Florida (our ideal growing season). I started the bed with compost from the dump, which people told me was made from the yard trimmings, etc. It’s free, and I haven’t set up a composting bin yet, so it’s a great deal. I later found out that they also use some of the rendered waste from the water treatment plant when recycling the waste water.

    What would be your thoughts on what your exposing yourself or your family to by using these a compost like this? I know anti-biotics and drugs aren’t getting filtered out of the water we recycle, could there be the same problem with compost like this? Could there be bacterial problems like the dookie tomatoes?

    Now, I did till the compost into the ground and did let it all settle at least 2 weeks before planting, and watered it everyday to help continue the composting process. Could I assume that this would aid in killing off anything “nasty”? Am I just paranoid? Have you heard any concern about things like this?

  8. Great post! Your perspective is refreshing. I’m going to share it with my friends…maybe I’ll get a few more to join me at the local farmer’s market tomorrow.

  9. To CTG-

    You raise an interesting question. This is a very complicated issue that I need to do a long post or article on. I just visited a City of Los Angeles composting facility where they compost with a combination of yard trimmings, sewage from a treatment plant and what they call “zoo-doo”, droppings from the herbivores at the zoo. I asked about the safety of using this compost on food crops and the workers sort of shrugged. They assured me that it is tested before it leaves the yard, but I can’t say what it is tested for (probably not pharmaceuticals). Personally, I wouldn’t be worried, I think there are probably worse things in our environment to focus on. That being said, I don’t think I’d use the city stuff on vegetables in the future. You’d be surprised what composted sewage ends up in – hint – potting soil at big box stores.

    I also don’t believe in tilling, incidentally. See our post “grow the soil” ( for info on “sheet mulching”. Or build a raised bed and import some soil for growing vegetables.

  10. I would add the hygiene hypothesis to your list of woes. I truly believe we do ourselves harm with excessive use of bacteria killing agents (antibiotics, antibacterial hand soap, hand sanitizer, bleach, etc.).

  11. Thanks for the feedback! I’m new to this, but definitely very open to the idea. I was in lawn care for 3.5 years, so I kinda developed a green understanding by default. But it also made me aware at what a waste all this fertilizing and cutting lawns for appearance was. I like the idea of a functional yard! Plus it’s fun to let my kids play in the dirt and learn how food is grown. I look forward to any future posts (or links to past posts) on composting in areas with rodent problems. For me it’s a lot of rial and error, but boy is it fun!

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