From fast food to dog food — new cases of contaminated cuisine seem to be a regular part of the modern news cycle. Tomatoes haven’t escaped mention in the ever-growing list, but the likelihood of their reappearance is about to shrink.
The Sunshine State produces half the fresh tomatoes eaten in the United States. The task requires more than 30,000 farm workers, growers and packers — all of whom will be required to undergo training in food safety practices developed by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the Florida Tomato Exchange, in cooperation with the Food and Drug Administration and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The effort has gained strong support from state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, who has announced $253,000 in USDA Specialty Crops Block Grant funding toward the training.
The program could begin as early as this month. Similar programs will extend to leafy greens, berries and melons next year.
“People are worried about how safe their food is to eat, and this really is a case where education is a big step toward improving prevention,” said Keith Schneider, the IFAS food safety researcher who will lead the statewide effort to train tomato workers in the best ways to safely handle produce.
In a Sept. 7 report on foodborne illnesses in restaurants, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that four widespread cases of raw-tomato-spread Salmonella infection between 2005 and 2006 led to more than 450 illnesses in 21 states.
Schneider said these kinds of reports aren’t signs of new and unheralded outbreaks, but rather examples of an improved ability to finger foodborne pathogens as the culprits.
“Our food is safer than ever,” he said. “But part of that safety — and a bigger part of improving that safety — is being able to detect when these pathogens are a problem, thinking about how to solve that problem and then taking that to the growers and packagers.”
“There are elements as simple as the fact that tomatoes need to go through something like a chlorine bath after being picked,” he said. “But there are a lot of details ranging from worker conditions to how fast the product is shipped — they all need to be taken care of if that salad or taco you’re going to get at a local restaurant is safe to eat.”
The statewide mandate comes from the tomato industry working with state and federal regulators.
“This is a step forward that this state’s tomato industry saw it needed to take, and so essentially took it upon itself to make food safety a priority,” said Martha Roberts, the former Florida deputy commissioner of agriculture, now special assistant to the director of the Florida Experiment Station, IFAS.
Many tomato growers already follow safe food-handling practices, she said. “But there are still some that can use our help — this isn’t necessarily going to be a simple task to reach everyone now covered by these requirements,” she said.
Roberts added that new tools will need to be developed, such as training materials for the large number of Spanish-speaking workers.
Additionally, the CDC reports state that “current knowledge of mechanisms of tomato contamination and methods of eradication of Salmonella in tomatoes is incomplete,” thus making “tomato safety research a priority.”
The tools and expertise developed by IFAS for tomato training will be applied to other produce next year when similar education will be instituted on a volunteer basis for the leafy greens, berry and melon industries.
“It seems like every other day you see something in the news about food contamination. If it’s not tomatoes, it’s spinach…or peanut butter, or dog food. I think most people ask themselves ‘will this ever stop?’” Schneider said. “The truth is that there our food supply is safer than it’s ever been, but there will always be issues with food safety — it’s all of our jobs to keep trying to make it better.”