Food processers and manufacturers with tomato-based products are expected to feel the impact of a salmonella outbreak that has infected more than 1,200 people in the US.
The outbreak was linked to raw red plum, red Roma or red round tomatoes, as well as products containing these raw tomatoes, and the US Food and Drug Administration had told consumers to avoid them – a warning that was lifted on July 17.
However, though the outbreak was connected with fresh tomatoes, other sectors of the industry are likely to suffer by association, according to David Hughes, Emeritus professor of food processing, Imperial College London.
He said: “Clearly it’s disastrous at a number of levels, mainly for those who are in the tomato production business because it is a crop that you can’t turn off – when it’s ripe, it’s ripe.
“Consumer don’t spend their days worrying about food safety because they assume that is has been taken care of. If they find out it hasn’t been taken care of they penalize you the only way they know how, and that is not to buy your product.
“It was a fresh tomato problem but all get hurt.”
Prof Hughes attended the 8th World Congress and 11th ISHS Symposium on the Processing Tomato in Toronto in June, while the salmonella outbreak was underway.
He said: “There was a general perception there by the delegates that we will be okay because we are not in the fresh tomato business.
“But from a consumers perspective tomatoes are tomatoes.”
The outbreak, which began in April, has cost the industry an estimated $100 million.
Prof Hughes said it was unlikely to shift consumption in the long term, but it would make people a lot more aware of the source of origin. It also highlights the need for the industry to have high integrity supply chains and suppliers that have processes in place for quality assurance.
He added that tomatoes along with onions are the most frequently consumed vegetable in the world (although the tomato is technically a fruit). And in the US fresh tomatoes are almost exclusively from Mexico, which is where the finger of blame for the outbreak has pointed.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll said that nearly half of consumers have changed their eating and buying habits in the past six months because they're afraid they could become ill from eating contaminated food.
Forty six percent said they avoided buying foods they would normally buy because of warnings about the safety of particular types of food and 45 percent said they were less likely to eat fresh tomatoes.
The poll results also showed that 86 percent said produce should be labeled so it can be tracked through each stage from processors back to the farm, an issue which has divided the industry. And 80 percent supported establishing stricter federal safety standards for fresh produce.
Tracking the source
After an investigation the FDA has now concluded that fresh tomatoes available in the domestic market are not associated with the current outbreak and said consumers may resume enjoying any type of fresh tomato.
However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local health departments are continuing to follow epidemiological and other evidence showing that raw jalapeño and raw serrano peppers now available in the domestic market may be linked to illnesses in this outbreak.
Earlier this month the US Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition said it is highly unlikely that the source of the outbreak will be traced.
So far 1,220 people in 42 US states, the District of Columbia and Canada have been infected with salmonella which is one of the most common enteric (intestinal) infections in the US.
Last week, the FDA released a progress report on its six-month-old Food Protection Plan. One of the recommendations is that the FDA should have the authority to impose stringent handling controls on fresh produce growers and suppliers to avert the outbreak of Salmonella, E. coli and other illness-causing pathogens.
Meanwhile, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) recently wrote to the FDA urging emergency regulations requiring traceability of fresh produce to allow health officials to react more quickly when a pathogen-related outbreak occurs.