Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lessons from a Summer Without Tomatoes

The produce section of my local urban grocery store, recently renovated with wide plank flooring and festive wooden bins to look like the inside of a country barn, boasts piles of tempting summer fruits and vegetables. It all looks delicious, the peaches and corn and deep purple eggplants, but I pause when I reach the tomatoes. And the peppers. And I wonder what other produce might make the news with a new salmonella outbreak.

Google's HealthMap provides a visual compilation of a range of diseases reported in the past 30 days from various sources, and in the U.S. salmonella tops the list. The most recent Salmonella saintpaul outbreak, initially blamed on tainted tomatoes, began in April and was finally traced to a pepper farm in Mexico on July 30, according to an article in the Washington Post. Over 1,300 people contracted Salmonella saintpaul this summer, the article stated.

Earlier this month, the center for Science in the Public Interest called for a better labeling process to track where each piece of produce originates, in order to quickly find the source of tainted foods. Growers fought against more stringent produce labeling for years, but they also lost more than $100 million in revenues when tomatoes were mistakenly blamed for the most recent outbreak.

Just to be safe, I've avoided raw tomatoes all summer. I usually use raw tomatoes year-round, and rarely stop to think about whether they are in season, or where they come from. Chile? Guam? Who knows? All I know is that I need tomatoes for a recipe I'm making. But I'm rethinking my blindness to the seasons, and the price (energy consumption, possible difficult-to-trace foodborne illness) of eating food grown so far away. How many trucks, ships, and airplanes has this produce been on, before it is presented (and misrepresented) to me as if I had pulled off a country road to buy fresh fruit at a farmstand? Lately I've started going to my local farmers' markets for produce, where the path from farm to fork is shorter and far less deceptive.

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