Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or You say Tomato, I say Salmonella

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First appeared in the Huffington Post

It looks like the killer tomatoes got off easy. McDonald’s reinstated tomatoes on their menu over a week ago. Our cultural short attention span has kicked into gear; how quickly we forgive and forget. At my restaurants I actually do still have customers asking me why I have tomatoes on the menu. Since they’re organic, greenhouse heirloom tomatoes, and listed as such on the menu, I silently thank the hours I’ve spent in therapy and yoga, take a deep breath, and explain for the hundredth time today that those aren’t the tomatoes that can kill you.
But my customers are right to be concerned, and thank goodness a few people still are. We shouldn’t forget so easily, because then we’ll never get to the bottom of why we are being poisoned by our own food supply.
We shouldn’t be getting sick from eating healthy foods like tomatoes, or spinach, last year’s big scare (which, ironically, was announced the morning after my greens-hating youngest son was finally persuaded to try a spinach salad for the first time). Like the spinach incident, this year’s tomato scandal reads like science fiction. Twenty-three people in seventeen states have been hospitalized with salmonella food poisoning after eating raw tomatoes. The FDA is investigating and clearing states and countries. Seven of the people dined at the same fast food restaurant, which helps narrow it down just a little. The implicated vegetables are Roma tomatoes and “round” tomatoes (Um, the last time I checked all tomatoes were round.). At last report the FDA suspected that the killer tomatoes came from Florida or Mexico, which both have vast corporate farms. These farms grow food purely for profit, without much concern for the land. The idea is to grow as much as possible, as fast as possible; that’s not what true farming is about.
I do believe the FDA is doing the best it can to investigate this, and they have the brainpower and dedication to do it. Unfortunately, they don’t have the manpower, since their budget has been cut by the current administration, like every other non-defense government agency. The Bush administration must finally be realizing this; they requested an emergency $275 million dollar addition to the FDA budget for 2009. That must mean that even they are afraid the metaphorical levee is going to break. They’re right. It’s getting out of control. If our food supply is so vulnerable that we’re poisoning ourselves inadvertently, it’s not hard to imagine what a terrorist could do. One day, boom: “Atlanta (home of the Centers for Disease Control), we have a problem.”
Here’s an idea. Since we’re now being terrorized by produce, maybe the FDA should be funded by the Department of Homeland Security. Maybe then the FDA will have the resources to figure out how to keep our food supply safe and secure, and deal with the real issues that can turn a tomato into a killer.

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