Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

The headline could have been the title of a Marvel comic: “FDA’s Team Tomato Fights Contamination.”

Well not quite, perhaps. But Team Tomato does represent what passes for superheroes at the U.S. food safety regulatory agency.

The FDA’s surprisingly jaunty article about such a sober topic actually contains quite a bit of insight into tomato safety research. Calling a fresh tomato “more than just a tasty addition to a sandwich or salad,” the article said FDA scientists view the tomato as an “enigma.”

“Enigma” seems another comic book-worthy term, perhaps prompting a vision of an elusive and stealthy villain. Yes, but the villain is salmonella, not the round red fruit of the vine.

Subsequent paragraphs in the article speak of the “mystery of the tomato” (its vulnerability to contamination by salmonella) and Team Tomato’s efforts to reducing contamination early in tomato production.

The FDA’s account noted that from 1973 to 2010, there were 15 multistate outbreaks of illnesses attributed to salmonella contamination of raw tomatoes, with 12 of these outbreaks taking place since 2000. Those outbreaks resulted in nearly 2,000 confirmed illnesses and three deaths, with East Coast states hardest hit.

The meat of the article speaks about research by FDA microbiologist Rebecca Bell, lead researcher on the tomato team. Bell said the work on an experimental farm at Virginia Tech’s Agriculture and Research Extension Center has yielded promising results.

Collecting more than a thousand bacteria in the soil and water in search of a natural enemy of salmonella, Bell said researchers found one.

The name of the exalted bacterium is paenibacillus — the anti-salmonella bug could just as easily command respect as a comic book hero in its own right.

Bell said FDA will be working with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop an organic treatment containing paenibacillus that would kill salmonella and other harmful organisms.

The article talks about the efforts of Team Tomato to share their research with industry leaders, with an eye on developing “more effective and targeted agricultural practices that will improve the safety of fresh tomatoes.”

The story notes that research into quality of water is a key factor in controlling salmonella, suggesting the importance of using clean water to irrigate at planting or when applying pesticides.

For those who are unfamiliar with the fact that FDA scientists are actually investing in food safety solutions for the fresh produce industry, the spotlight on Team Tomato will provide fresh insights.

It would be a stretch to say Team Tomato will ever reach superhero status in the produce supply chain. Yet the agency’s investment in food safety and its commitment to share its research provides more proof that the regulatory agency will never be their villain.


The rapid growth of The Packer Market — the publication’s new social media site — has been fun to watch.

As of July 11, more than 650 members have registered to be a part of the community.

Reflecting a true global reach, the online community has members from throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico, along with men and women from China, Egypt, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Chile, Netherlands, Peru and other countries.

Check it out and join if you haven’t done so yet. If you dare, answer this hot-topic question I recently posed to the group — Which has more staying power: local or organic demand?

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.