Flash in the Pan 

Another reason to buy local

A recent tomato-borne salmonella outbreak has sickened more than 150 people. While most of those affected reside in Texas and New Mexico, 15 other states were impacted, including Montana. The United States Food and Drug Administration recommends consumers avoid roma and red round slicing tomatoes, and limit their tomato consumption to cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes with the vine still attached, and tomatoes grown at home.  This also means that if you want to be sure to avoid contaminated tomatoes, you must avoid fresh salsa, salad and other restaurant-purchased raw tomato products.

On an FDA webpage dedicated to this salmonella outbreak (http://www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/tomatoes.html), the agency lists the states and regions that it has ruled out from being associated with the outbreak. Beyond that, if the FDA knows anything else about where the salmonella might be coming from, it isn’t saying.  

There are a few things we can figure from the FDA’s limited information. For one, it’s clear that the pathogen in question, Salmonella saintpaul, is present inside the tomatoes, which means that no amount of washing will make the contaminated tomatoes safe. Why else would the FDA claim that tomatoes with the vine still attached are safe? Assuming the tomato skin is unbroken, the stem-end provides the only open door into the tomato. So if vine-attached tomatoes, which don’t present this open door, are okay, it suggests that the problem is on the inside.

I suspect that it was the washing phase of the processing of these tomatoes that might have spread the contamination. If the tomatoes were washed in salmonella-containing water, the bacterium could have been absorbed into the tomato via the point where the stem was attached.

So I’m left to conclude that some unknown tomato processing plant, somewhere, has been using contaminated water to wash its tomatoes, since April—when the first case of Salmonella saintpaul was confirmed.

Either way, the fact that the source of this contamination is still undisclosed amounts to another example of the dangers of an industrial food system that is too large and complex to effectively monitor. And the fact that this has been going on since April and nobody seems to be talking about it suggests that the public is used to this kind of thing, resigned to it, or otherwise complacent with the fact that our food system is out of control. This is the third national salmonella scare of the year—if anyone’s keeping track, this follows outbreaks of salmonella-contaminated dried cereal and melons. 

Anyway, unless farmers at your local farmers’ market are committing the highly unscrupulous act of selling store-bought tomatoes as their own produce, I think you’d be fine buying any tomato at the market—even the dreaded red, round tomatoes.

I’ve been branded a “food-elitist” for my insistent support for farmers’ markets and other sources of locally grown food. This label is based on the assumption that local food grown by small-scale farmers is more expensive than store-bought produce. But now that food prices are increasing due to soaring energy prices, farmers’ market prices might soon be competitive with supermarket prices.

And while most food prices are going up, some are going down. Bacon prices, for instance, have dropped in recent days as the salmonella outbreak has finally captured national media attention. Last Thursday alone, pork belly futures fell nearly 20 percent, as traders apparently worried that the tomato scare might reduce the number of bacon, lettuce, and tomato (or BLT) sandwiches that consumers will make at home and order at restaurants.

“Realistically, ideas that people are going to be wary of buying tomatoes can’t have been viewed as a favorable development by belly traders,” said Dan Vaught, Wachovia Securities’ livestock analyst, according to Reuters.

While we’re on the subject of this wonderful sandwich, a few notes on the BLT are in order.

First of all, there should be onions on it. Call it the BLOT, if you wish, but please don’t hold the onions. Also, the bread should be toasted—otherwise the juice of the tomatoes, combined with the penetrating action of the mayo, will quickly turn your bread to mush.

The arrangement of the BLT’s contents is also crucial. The tomato must have direct contact with the mayo, the bacon must have contact with the tomato, and the onions must have contact with the bacon. And while commodity bacon is cheap these days, I would still encourage you to make your BLT with locally grown, elitist bacon. There’s good local pork available at the Clark Fork River Market (I’ve recently been informed by the Sensitivity Police that my use of the term “Meat Market” is insulting, not sure to whom). 

There’s good local bread available, too, from bakeries all around town. And you can even make mayonnaise, that all-important BLT ingredient, out of local eggs and Montana-grown safflower, sunflower, or canola oil—produced by Montola vegetable oils in Culbertson, Mont.

And if all this local-shmokel food elitism is too much for you to handle, then please feel free to choke down your BLT, with or without onions, with e.coli spiked lettuce and with the populist, cheap, salmonella-laced tomato of your choice.

Ask Ari: A final note on veggies and ghettos

Be careful what you wish for, I suppose, could be the take-home message with regard to my call for comment on Ghetto-ized Grower’s accusation last week that I mocked small farmers, especially Asians, in a recent column. Some readers came to my defense, while others agreed with Ghetto-ized Grower that I’m smug, superior, dismissive, etc. Here’s an example.

“Ari: Like the Ghetto-ized Grower, I noted the superior and dismissive tone in your piece about the market under the Higgins bridge. You clearly didn’t use the words “Meat Market” as a compliment. But the superior and dismissive tone started in the article about the closing of your buddy’s 515 restaurant. If he’s like you, you both need a serving of humble pie.”

Okay, so if I sing someone’s praises I’m his “buddy”? And if I use the term “Meat Market,” as many Missoulians do, to describe the Clark Fork River Market, that’s insulting?  At the risk of sounding smug, I’m holding my tongue here.

I got some nice letters of support too, but praise isn’t as interesting as criticism. At least so far nobody seems to have agreed with GG that my use of the term “Veggie Ghetto” is a dig at “Asians who tend small plots.”

In any case, while the real estate prices in the ghetto may be low, ghettos also tend to be hotbeds for creativity, and strongholds of community and neighborly values. And if anyone really thinks I’m dissing small farmers, perhaps they should be reading less complicated material than mine. How’s that for smug?
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