Watch — and wash — what you eat

When it's ripe, you can grip it like a baseball, its glowingly smooth surface bulging as if it can barely contain the juices and fruity tissue within. Punctured and slivered with a knife, it flavors salads and hamburgers, while yielding to examination of the small miracle of its being.

It is grown in soils from China to Chile. Its Latin name, Solanum lycopersicum, is derived from the Latin words that may be translated, roughly, as the sun-plant wolf-peach — the Old World's attempt to label the previously unknown fruit from the New World.

Somehow, somewhere, in some sunny field, a dangerous strain of bacteria — salmonella — attached itself to a tomato. Perhaps it came from the intestines of an animal whose manure was used as fertilizer. Perhaps the tomatoes weren't washed on their way from the vine to the table. At this writing, researchers still haven't figured out where the current outbreak started.

They do know that it's serious — sufficiently serious to send at least 95 people to the hospital, complaining of diarrhea, cramps, fever, nausea, chills or other symptoms. One victim died. Some six weeks after the first case was reported in New Mexico, the Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory. The agency explained the delay by noting that early cases are often undiagnosed and it took a while to determine that tomatoes were the common thread in all the cases.

The advisory has been sweeping in its effects, removing tomatoes from plates in white-tablecloth restaurants and from paper-wrapped buns in fast-food outlets. Signs in grocery stores advise shoppers that the tomatoes on sale there are safe, either because they came from areas where no salmonella has been reported, or from a hothouse, or because they are sold on the vine.

The latest outbreak, which follows similar cases related to spinach, lettuce, cantaloupe and other kinds of produce, has renewed calls for better practices, better labeling and more inspections of food-handling plants. Yet with so many tomatoes under cultivation, and so many suppliers, distributors and retailers in the system, labeling is unlikely to be very helpful. Better oversight would surely help, as the Food and Drug Administration has been criticized repeatedly for its inability to safeguard the food supply.

Just last week, the Government Accountability Office issued a report titled "FDA has provided few details on the resources and strategies needed to implement its food protection plan." This follows by 17 months the GAO's determination that "federal oversight of food safety (is) a high-risk area needing urgent attention and transformation." In fact, the FDA has been sluggish in responding to food-borne illnesses and too unresponsive to queries about what it's doing to transform itself. The Bush administration shouldn't hesitate to replace leaders who don't seem to take their agency's mission as seriously as they must.

Until then, avoid round red and Roma/plum tomatoes that the FDA has identified as suspect (at, click "Food" and "Food safety.") Better still, buy local, from the grower.

And always wash what you eat.

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