- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2008


Since April, close to 200 people have been sickened by a rare strain of the bacteria salmonella found in tomatoes This nutritious fruit has now become the unfortunate focus of the latest health scare.

Tomatoes, which contain fiber, vitamin C, A, B6, K, folate, niacin, potassium, and plenty of other good-for-you minerals, have been removed from Big Macs and other sandwiches and the shelves at McDonalds - leaving shreds of lettuce as practically the only healthy ingredient. Consider that Big Macs contain 540 calories, 260 of which are from fat. Overall a Big Mac has 29 grams of fat, which is 45 percent of the suggested daily value.

And since over 700,000 people are dying of heart disease in the U.S. every year, and another 300,000 from stroke which is also the number one cause of disability, it is also worth considering what is most dangerous to our health: all the fatty meat we Americans eat that can lead to heart disease, or the rare healthy vegetable we ignore and then worry about - which can cause heart disease from the stress?

Fear is still by far the biggest pathogen here, not salmonella. The chance of your getting sick from sinking your teeth into a single tomato remains minimal, but it seems greater and greater the more media attention the problem gets. The FDA is compelled to use its precious resources going from crop to crop and pronouncing it safe for consumption. It will take many expensive weeks for this fear to fade from the public mindset, and for tomatoes to once again seem safe. Of course, the FDA has little choice but to act, given the current inability to find the source of the problem as well as the possibility of lawsuits springing up. Of course, this is not the same as saying that tomatoes are unsafe.

It would also be incorrect to imply that that there is no problem with food-borne bacteria. There are 76 million cases of food poisoning in the U.S. every year and 5,000 deaths. But salmonella is only a small part of the problem. Though our food is the safest in history, no amount of washing will remove all the pathogens from produce. Organic marketers are generally against irradiating food and gene-splicing techniques to neutralize bacterial toxins and introduce therapeutic proteins. But there is no evidence to suggest that these techniques aren’t safe. Plus, since produce is often produced in one state and marketed in another in order to provide Americans vegetables throughout the winter, when an outbreak occurs, it often seems worse than it is because it is not confined to a single state.

Bacteria also propagate in the beef and poultry we raise, and find their way into our crops through manure contamination of rainwater and irrigation.

It would be ideal if all this obsessive focus on tomatoes could be a wake-up call for a measured response to the problem. But I wouldn’t bet on it. We are more likely to ricochet from fear of tomatoes to fear of the techniques we can use to control bacteria.

I am hoping that this bug du jour fades from focus before the media remembers that ketchup comes from tomatoes - and then my children will have lost their only fruit.

Marc Siegel, M.D., is an associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and the author of “False Alarm: the Truth About the Epidemic of Fear.”

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