Survival Sally was weeding her garden when I stopped by last night. It was a beautiful evening, with the blue sky and lush green foliage of her garden framing her in her brightly colored top as in a magazine picture. I got a bit of a lesson about confronting a headstrong woman wearing a long bladed knife when I told her a reader raised doubts and questions about her article on washing vegetables.
She stood up straight and looked me squarely in the eye. “I suppose some government food safety expert says you can’t wash all the Salmonella off tomatoes, right?”
“Well, yeah, that’s part of it,” I said.
She laid aside the knife she was holding and put her gloved hands on her hips. “Look, suppose you get only 99% of the bacteria off your tomatoes by washing them in water and vinegar. You take the chance you’ll still get Salmonella, right? But do you want your readers to take the chances they’d take by not washing them, or by washing them only in water??
“Well, no, of course not, but your argument really isn’t with me.”
She relaxed a little. “Oh, I know, hon. I just get tired of the pronouncements from experts sometimes, that’s all.” She bent down to resume pulling and cutting the weeds. “They mean well, but they’re not always that helpful.”
“But what if the Saintpaul Salmonella affecting these tomatoes is different or stronger? What if it’s actually in the tomatoes themselves?” I asked. “I mean, I just heard over 380 people are now reported as having gotten sick over the past couple months. Could this be some kind of bioterrorism or something?”
She didn’t reply for a bit, then stood up to face me again. “You’re starting to sound like Sam, and I mean that as a compliment. Look, just where are these tomatoes coming from anyway? Have they pinned that down yet?”
“Maybe from a couple of large packers somewhere in
She raised her right hand and pointed a finger at me. “That’s it right there! I don’t know what the deal is with
“But how would Salmonella get into the tomatoes themselves?” I asked.
“Well, tomatoes could get contaminated from contact with irrigation water that contains raw sewage, sewage effluent that’s not properly treated, runoff water and raw manure. It’s my understanding that there have been some recent studies that show that produce can take in pathogenic bacteria through their root systems, as well as through the flesh or even stem scars.”
“Interesting,” I said. “I hadn’t thought of that. It makes buying locally grown tomatoes at the farmer’s market sound better all the time.”
“Yes, it does. It makes growing your own sound that much better, too.” She bent down again, but stood back up as something else occurred to her. “If somebody’s really skittish about their tomatoes, even after they’ve washed them, they can always cook them, you know. If you cook them to at least 145 degrees for 16 seconds or more, it will kill the bacteria. It’s also not as wonderful as a freshly grown and picked tomato in my opinion.”
She was just stooping over again as I asked her my next question. “Sorry to bother you, but what should I tell my readers to do to avoid problems with Salmonella in tomatoes in the first place?”
She bent down to weed again, turning her head to me periodically as she talked. “Well, just follow some common sense. I still say washing with vinegar and water is a good idea, no matter what Uncle Sam says. Also, don’t buy or eat damaged vegetables. Toss them in the compost pile. Naturally, refrigerate any fruit or vegetable you’ve cut into, except for whole, fresh tomatoes. They lose taste when you put them in the fridge. Better eat those up as soon as you can. Then, of course, you don’t want to get your veggies into any raw meat drippings. Be sure to wash countertops, cutting boards, dishes and utensils well with soap and hot water. Also, it should go without saying, but I know it needs to be said these days, that you should always wash your hands, especially after changing diapers, playing with pets, or after going to the bathroom.”
“That’s a pretty good list,” I said. “Anything else?”
“Just know where your food comes from if you possibly can.”
“OK, great. Thanks, Sally, I really appreciate your help. I’ll write up a post for my blog readers right away.
“Glad to help, John.” She stood to face me again and wiped her face with the back of her hand. “Sometimes, all it takes is a little common sense to stay healthy. We don’t seem to have much of that any more.”
“Well, thanks again. I’m going into the house if you don’t mind and talk to Sam about having him write another blog post for me.”