University of Florida researchers have discovered that tomato variety and maturity influence the ways salmonella bacteria respond to the fruit.

The findings, published Aug. 31 by the online, open-access journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE, suggest researchers may be able to develop tomato cultivars more resistant to salmonella contamination.

Also, by monitoring tomato ripeness, it may be possible to reduce the fruit’s susceptibility to contamination during and after harvest, said Max Teplitski, an associate professor in soil microbiology.

And finally, he said, the findings support the idea that salmonella contamination isn’t solely due to hygiene problems on the picking or handling end — although such workers are often the first blamed.

“Sanitation, of course, contributes to produce safety. But now that we know there’s also biology behind these interactions, it’s important to clearly understand that it’s not always the fault of the farmers and the producers and packers,” Teplitski said. “Even though our studies have been limited in scope, these results give us a realistic expectation that we can identify or develop a tomato variety that is high yielding and also less susceptible to salmonella contamination.”

Salmonella infection is among the most common foodborne illnesses, often spread by raw or undercooked meat, poultry or eggs, but sometimes a result of eating contaminated produce. Its symptoms can include abdominal pain, fever, nausea and vomiting.

In 2008, federal health officials erroneously blamed a salmonella outbreak on domestically grown tomatoes, but later said imported contaminated peppers were responsible. Growers in Florida and other states lost an estimated $100 million in sales.