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Tomatoes and Their Bad Rap

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?" former Labor Secretary Ray Donovan famously asked after being indicted for mob-related larceny and fraud, and then acquitted of the charges.

Vegetables can have the same problem -- or to be (SET ITA) botanically (END ITAL) correct in the case of tomatoes, fruit. For three months, the Food and Drug Administration held tomatoes as the prime suspect in a salmonella outbreak that sickened perhaps 40,000 people. Last week, the FDA declared all tomatoes safe to eat.

Now lo and behold, the agency has just found a single Mexican-grown jalapeno pepper carrying the same bacteria that was causing the trouble. However, it doesn't know where the pepper got tainted.

Meanwhile, where does the tomato go to get its reputation back? Though the Feds failed to find one guilty tomato, the product was all but tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. Example from a June 13 broadcast on National Public Radio: "Yesterday, the FDA admitted that the number of people sickened by salmonella-tainted tomatoes is bigger than they thought."

As often happens in crime coverage, the indictment lands on page one, while the acquittal gets buried on page 18. How many consumers have heard the all-clear siren on tomatoes?

So many restaurant patrons -- myself included -- carry fresh memories of being told they couldn't have a red slice on their burgers and for their own safety? An AP-Ipsos poll taken last week, just before the FDA exoneration, found that nearly half the public worried about eating tomatoes. Some respondents said they'd even thrown out produce.

Such crises create losers, big and small, and even some winners. As noted, the obvious losers are the tomato growers, packers and shippers. The National Restaurant Association says the food scare cost its members at least $100 million.

Still, the recent salmonella eruption has been a disappointment for plaintiffs' lawyers. One would be Seattle's Marler Clark law firm, which specializes in suing over food-borne illnesses. With several dozen clients who are "culture positive" for salmonella, the company is trying to build a case -- but against whom? As partner Bill Marler lamented to The Wall Street Journal, there's "no one to sue."

The tomato panic also produced some minor winners. For Lou Dobbs, the crisis fed into two favorite themes. One was bumbling Washington bureaucrats allegedly unable to protect the middle class from food poisoning. The other was something made in Mexico causing woe for Americans.

Another winner was the locavore community. Locavores believe in eating locally produced food. It's hard to pinpoint the source of the salmonella in part because the food distribution system mixes produce from all over the globe. A diner who only consumes things produced within, say a 150- mile radius, vaguely knows where it comes from.

The FDA is undoubtedly a winner. After a big recall of raw tomatoes in June, the Bush administration asked Congress to expand the FDA's budget, and lawmakers are complying with the request.

The question for policy makers is this: The U.S. food supply is extremely safe, and any incremental improvement in that record will be very costly. Is it worth the money?

And even if you wanted to spend a lot to advance food safety, would consumer advocates like the consequences? For example, one can ensure salmonella-proof food by irradiating it, which is what they routinely do in Europe. Now ask Ralph Nader how he feels about irradiation.

In this country, tomatoes are an easy culinary sell, so one expects a relatively rapid recovery of the tomato's reputation. The tomato scare of 2008 will fade into history, no doubt, but isn't it a shame that so many innocents got hurt?

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