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In fairness to processors, there is ample evidence to suggest that no
amount of washing will rid all pathogens from produce. The reason is that
the contamination may occur not on the plant, but in it. Exposure to
Salmonella, E. coli or other microorganisms at key stages of the growing
process may allow them to be introduced into the plant's vascular system.
There is technology available today that could both inhibit
microorganisms' ability to grow within plant cells and block the synthesis
of the bacterial toxins.
But don't expect your favourite organic producer to embrace this
triple-threat technology, even if it would keep his customers from getting
sick. Why? The technology in question is gene-splicing (also known as
"genetic modification", or GM) - an advance the organic lobby has repeatedly
vilified and rejected.
In the wake of the recent tomato contamination, will the organic lobby
rethink its opposition to biotechnology?
However, some produce, including tomatoes and lettuce, can draw
bacteria into interior tissue if they are cut or damaged. If that
happens, washing won't remove the contamination.
More research is needed to determine if Salmonella can travel from the
roots to the fruit or if contaminated seeds can affect subsequent
generations of tomato plants
Salmonella and other pathogens are killed at 145 degrees, said Britt
Burton-Freeman, Ph.D., at the National Center for Food Safety & Technology
of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Since tomato products are heat
processed at temperatures well above that, consumers can feel assured about continuing to use them.
The FDA says that raw red plum, red Roma and round red tomatoes
shouldn't be handled or eaten at all. Neither washing nor cooking the
produce will eliminate the bacteria, the agency said on its Web site.
The FDA recommended that consumers limit their tomato consumption to
those that aren't the likely source of illnesses, such as cherry tomatoes,
grape tomatoes and those sold with the vine still attached.
In March of 1999, FDA initiated a 1000 sample survey focused on high volume imported fresh produce. Broccoli, cantaloupe, celery, cilantro, culantro, loose-leaf lettuce, parsley, scallions (green onions), strawberries and tomatoes were collected and analyzed for Salmonella, and E. coli O157:H7. All commodities except for cilantro, culantro, lettuce and strawberries were analyzed for Shigella. Twenty-one countries were represented in the collection and sampling of fresh produce.
Based on farm investigations and other information, a failure to follow GAPs and GMPs was often associated with the findings of pathogen contamination. In particular, inadequate manure management and lack of appropriate field and transport sanitation practices was most frequently associated with overall contamination. Specific problems included fields that were open to domestic animals and were fertilized by untreated animal manure, equipment and tools not being sanitized, unsanitary harvesting and/or packing equipment (e.g., woven plastic bags to collect culantro after harvest) and packing practices, and unsanitary methods of transportation (e.g., trucks washed with non-chlorinated water and/or cleaned infrequently). And in at least one instance, a firm placed on DWPE could not provide documentation to certify the cleanliness of the water used for irrigation and fertilization.
Of the 21 firms placed on DWPE, 14 firms were based in Mexico, one (1) firm in Canada, three (3) firms in Costa Rica, one (1) firm in Guatemala, one (1) firm in Chile and one (1) firm in Trinidad & Tobago. Firms from Mexico made a substantial effort to be removed from DWPE. At the completion of this assignment, nine (9) of the 14 firms based in Mexico, or 64.3%, successfully identified and corrected all identifiable sources of potential contamination and were subsequently removed from DWPE.