A several-month-old outbreak of food poisoning linked to a bacterium called Salmonella Saintpaul in raw tomatoes is affecting consumers nationwide. Almost 200 cases of illness have been reported in 16 states in the West, Midwest and Northeast. Many restaurants and supermarkets across the country have pulled fresh tomatoes from their menus and produce aisles.
Tenders of tomatoes and savorers of salads are suffering, to be sure, but this is also the organic-food industry’s worst nightmare: The surest ways to prevent such outbreaks are “Frankenfood” and irradiation, both anathema to obsessive organickers and other food-kooks.
Government estimates tell us food contaminated with microorganisms causes 76 million cases of illness - marked by fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps - and 5,000 deaths a year in the United States. The most frequent culprits: the bacteria Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli 0157:H7; and caliciviruses, also known as the Norwalk and Norwalk-like viruses.
Tomato-borne gastrointestinal illnesses are nothing new. A search for “Salmonella tomatoes” on the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention yields 280 hits, all predating the current outbreak. As is the case for many fruits and vegetables eaten raw, tomatoes harbor many potential pathogens, including various strains of Salmonella. In 2006, two high-profile outbreaks of E. coli-related illnesses traced to spinach and lettuce, respectively, received wide publicity. The casualties: three deaths and about 300 illnesses nationwide.
Produce growers can’t assure us 100 percent safety. Modern farming operations - especially the larger ones - already employ strict standards and safeguards designed to keep food pathogen-free. And most often they do work: Americans’ food is not only the least expensive, but also the safest, in the history of humankind.
But there are limits. The only way to make a cultivated field completely safe from microbial contamination is to pave it over. But we can’t eat asphalt, and we would only trade very rare agricultural mishaps for fender-benders.
Food processors can’t be perfect, either. No amount of washing will rid all pathogens from produce - for some contamination may occur not on the plant, but in it: At key stages of growth, micro- organisms can enter a plant’s vascular system via contaminated water.
Irradiation of fresh food is one answer - but this critical food-safety tool is vastly under-used, largely due to government overregulation and to opposition from the organic food lobby and from the kinds of people who think irradiation is part of a plot by space aliens to injure Earthlings.
How important is it? “If even 50 percent of meat and poultry consumed in the United States were irradiated, the potential impact on food-borne disease would be a reduction [annually of] 900,000 cases and 300 deaths,” predicted Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota.
Yet irradiation is no panacea. It quite effectively kills bacteria and viruses - but it doesn’t inactivate the potent toxins secreted by bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium botulinum.
The best answer is recombinant DNA technology, or gene-splicing - an advance the organic lobby has repeatedly vilified and rejected.
Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all plants in our diet have been genetically improved in some way. But it’s now well within our power to modify the genes of plants in highly precise ways, to bolster their resistance to microorganisms that cause food poisoning and to block the synthesis of the bacterial toxins.
The technology can also make antibodies to be given to infected patients to neutralize the toxins. And it can produce therapeutic proteins (such as lactoferrin and lysozyme, found in human tears and breast milk) that are safe and highly effective treatments for diarrhea, the primary symptom of food poisoning.
For organic marketers, the irony is more bitter than fresh-picked radicchio. The technologies that offer the best ways to safeguard their customers are the ones they’ve fought hardest to forestall and confound.
Will the “attack of the killer tomatoes” move the organic lobby to rethink its opposition to “Frankenfood” and irradiation -and let science, common sense and decency trump ideology? I’m not betting the farm on it.