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Fears pull tomatoes off the menu

Tomatoes

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: You say tomato, I say tomahto, today McDonalds decided to call the whole thing off.

Retailers and restaurants have stopped serving and selling certain varieties of tomatoes. Red Roma, red plum, and round red tomatoes are suspected in a Salmonella outbreak that's spread to 16 states so far.

Nobody's sure exactly where the bacteria came from or how to stop it, which for some in the produce business sounds distressingly familiar.

From North Carolina Public Radio...Marketplace's Janet Babin reports.


Janet Babin: More than a few of us have had a nasty experience with Salmonella. The bacteria's usually associated with meat, raw eggs or mayonnaise.

Professor Francisco Diez of the University of Minnesota says over the past few decades, it's been showing up in veggies.

Francisco Diez: Salmonella is present in the gastrointestinal tract of animals.

Yum! That means the tomatoes could have been contaminated by manure or from tainted irrigation water. That's how E. coli got into spinach in 2006. The outbreak cost spinach growers more than $100 million.

Diez says officials don't know the source of the Salmonella. Produce these days comes from all over the globe. Each farm uses different irrigation and hygiene practices:

Diez: The source could be many, but in this particular outbreak is too early to tell where it actually come from.

The Salmonella is so widespread that the Food and Drug Administration is only identifying those states and countries that have not been associated with it.

Last year's U.S. field grown tomato crop was worth $1.3 billion. Farmers are losing millions each day.

Even in states like California that have the all clear, consumers probably won't buy tomatoes... but they may grow their own.

Linda Sap runs the Tomato Growers Supply Company. The Florida business sells seeds. She says her orders are growing like dandelions.

Linda Sap: Today, we had twice as many as we had on this Monday in 2007.

I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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