Brownwood Bulletin

For a few years, the label “grown in Texas” on fruits and vegetables was a bragging right. It was a lot like saying, “This food wasn’t picked before it was ripe so it could be shipped hundreds or thousands of miles so it might be in your hands at the right time.”

More recently, the label has been an assurance that the food is healthy to eat.

Tomato farmers in Texas and elsewhere have lost millions in sales since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers about a salmonella outbreak in tomatoes this spring. But federal inspectors have found no evidence of contamination in the crop grown in Texas and several other states. Now, to add to the confusion, the government is preparing to start testing numerous other types of fresh produce in the hunt for the source of the nation’s record salmonella outbreak — even as it insists tomatoes remain the leading suspect.

Investigators are mum on exactly what other vegetables are getting tracked, so at least the damage to innocent producers will be minimal.

Items commonly served with fresh tomatoes is the only hint Food and Drug Administration food safety chief Dr. David Acheson would give, rightly calling it “irresponsible” to point a finger until he has more evidence that some other food really deserves the extra scrutiny.

The reason for the study is that the outbreak continues, with 869 people confirmed having taken ill. Most troubling is that at least 179 of them fell ill in June, the latest on June 20. That is more than two months after the first salmonella illnesses appeared, meaning the outbreak is continuing weeks longer than food-poisoning specialists had expected and suggesting the culprit is still on the market.

Over the weekend, disease detectives with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began interviewing people sickened in June to find out what they ate and to compare their diets with those of healthy relatives and neighbors. Officials wouldn’t reveal early findings, except to say they supported the investigation’s new move.

Among the possibilities the FDA is exploring is whether tomatoes and other produce are sharing a common packing or shipping site where both might become contaminated, or whether multiple foods might be tainted while being grown on adjoining farms or with common water sources.

Pressure is increasing on the FDA to solve the case, with the tomato industry suffering millions of dollars in losses and pushing for Congress to investigate how the agency handled the outbreak.

In the meanwhile, the consumer should remember that this situation in manageable, and that many if not most tomatoes are perfectly safe, especially if you read those labels.