Going public: FDA not liable for $15 million in damages sought by tomato grower for food safety warning error

I remember. I was in Quebec City with a pregnant Amy when all this went down. Doing hour-long iradio interviews where midnight callers asked about aliens and Salmonella.

tomato

Michael Booth of the National Law Journal reports the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cannot be held liable for financial damages suffered by farmers when it issues emergency, but erroneous, food safety warnings, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has ruled.

In its Dec. 2 ruling, the Fourth Circuit refused to allow a South Carolina tomato farmer to seek more than $15 million in damages from the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act after the FDA issued a warning that an outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul was caused by contaminated tomatoes, when it was later determined that the outbreak was caused by contaminated peppers imported from Mexico.

A South Carolina tomato farm, Seaside Farm on St. Helena Island, sued the federal government, claiming that the incorrect warnings issued by the FDA, beginning in May 2008 and later corrected, cost it $15,036,294 in revenue. The Fourth Circuit agreed with a trial court that the FDA was acting within its authority to issue emergency food safety warnings based on preliminary information in order to protect public health.

“We refuse to place FDA between a rock and a hard place,” wrote Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson for the panel, sitting in Richmond.

“One the one hand, if FDA issued a contamination warning that was even arguably overbroad, premature, or of anything less than perfect accuracy, injured companies would plague the agency with lawsuits,” he said.

“On the other hand, delay in issuing a contamination warning would lead to massive tort liability with respect to consumers who suffer serious or even fatal consequences that a timely warning might have averted,” Wilkinson said.

Judges Paul Niemeyer and Dennis Shedd joined in the Dec. 2 ruling.

The medical crisis arose on May 22, 2008, when the New Mexico Department of Health notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that a number of residents had been diagnosed as having Salmonella Saintpaul, a strain that causes fever, diarrhea, nausea and, if left untreated, death. Soon after, similar reports came in from Texas.

The CDC determined that a “strong statistical” analysis determined that the illnesses were caused by people eating raw tomatoes. By June 1 of that year, CDC was investigating 87 illnesses in nine states.

tomato-irradiationThe FDA then issued a warning to consumers in New Mexico and Texas. By June 6, 2008, however, reported cases grew to 145 incidents in 16 states. In New Jersey, three people were reported to have been diagnosed with the illness. On June 7, the FDA issued a blanket nationwide warning telling consumers that they should be wary of eating raw tomatoes. (New Jersey tomatoes were not implicated, since they do not ripen until later in the season.)

The warning listed a number of countries and states, including South Carolina, that were not included and were not implicated, but those states were not listed in media reports. Eventually, 1,220 people were diagnosed as having Salmonella Saintpaul.

Raw tomatoes were not the cause of the illnesses, however. The contamination was traced to imported jalapeño and serrano peppers imported from Mexico.

Seaside Farm, which had just harvested a large crop of tomatoes, sued in May 2011. The farm claimed the erroneous FDA warning about tomatoes cost it $15 million-plus damages in revenue. 

First world problems: ‘People feel very strongly about their tomatoes’ Fruit flies are a factor in warm climates like Brisbane and Florida

Michael Pollan is an entertainer from a long line of American hucksters.

He’s not a professor, he’s a decent writer of food porn.

powell-tomato(Those with the least qualifications most actively seek the perceived credibility of a title.)

When his biggest soundbite is “I’d never eat a refrigerated tomato,” the absolutism shines through like any other spoiled demagogue.

Dan Charles of NPR fell into the gotta-be-cool trap without knowing shit, but eventually admitted it.

Charles says, There’s a laboratory at the University of University of Florida, in Gainesville, that has been at the forefront of research on tomato taste. Scientists there have been studying the chemical makeup of great-tasting tomatoes, as well as the not-so-great tasting ones at supermarkets.

“There’s a lot of things wrong with tomatoes right now,” says Denise Tieman, a research associate professor there. “We’re trying to fix them, or at least figure out what’s going wrong.”

These researchers studied this refrigeration question. They looked at what happened when a tomato goes into your kitchen fridge, or into the tomato industry’s refrigerated trucks and storage rooms.

Some components of a tomato’s flavor were unaffected, such as sugars and acids. But they found that after seven days of refrigeration, tomatoes had lower levels of certain chemicals that Tieman says are really important. These so-called aroma compounds easily vaporize. “That’s what gives the tomato its distinctive aroma and flavor,” she says.

The researchers also gave chilled and unchilled tomatoes to dozens of people to evaluate, in blind taste tests, “and they could definitely tell the difference,” says Tieman. The tomatoes that weren’t chilled got better ratings.

The scientists also figured out how chilling reduced flavor; cold temperatures actually turned off specific genes, and that, in turn cut down production of these flavor compounds.

Tieman speculates that someday scientists will figure out how to keep those genes turned on, even when chilled, so the tomato industry can have it both ways: They can refrigerate tomatoes to extend shelf life, without losing flavor.

tomatoThankfully, chilling didn’t seem to affect nutrition – the chilled tomatoes were just as nutritious as the non-refrigerated ones.

The new findings appear in this week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

As significant as the results are, they probably won’t end the great tomato refrigeration debate.

“It’s not so clear cut,” says Daniel Gritzer, culinary director at SeriousEats.com, a food website. Two years ago, he did a series of blind taste tests with many different tomatoes, in New York and in California.

“Sometimes I found that the refrigerator is, in fact, your best bet,” says Gritzer.

That’s especially true for a tomato that’s already ripe and at peak flavor, he says. If you let that tomato sit on your counter, it’ll end up tasting worse.

Gritzer wrote a long blog post, detailing his results, and got a flood of reaction. “Some people wrote to say, ‘Hey, this is what I’ve always found, I’m so glad you wrote this,'” Gritzer says. “And then, a lot of people pushed back saying, ‘You’re insane, you don’t know what you’re talking about.'”

And when the hockey kids call me Doug, I say that’s Dr. Doug, I didn’t spend six years in evil hockey coaching land to be called Mister.

We’re all hosts on a viral planet, plants too

I studied Verticillium in tomato plants in my aborted MSc degree.

Journalism was more fun, and my hands were black from the printing press instead of green (yes, I am that old).

tomato.cmvLaurel Hamers of Science News writes that instead of destroying its leafy hosts, one common plant virus takes a more backhanded approach to domination. It makes infected plants more attractive to pollinators, ensuring itself a continued supply of virus-susceptible plant hosts for generations to come.

The strategy might be a way for the virus to discourage resistance from building up in the plant population, University of Cambridge biologist John Carr and colleagues report online August 11 in PLOS Pathogens.

“It looks like the pathogen is cheating a little bit —but in a way that helps its host,” says Carr.

Plants give off cocktails of volatile chemicals that send signals to pollinators, predators and other plants. Carr and his team found that tomato plants infected with cucumber mosaic virus gave off a different cocktail of these chemicals than non-infected plants — and that bumblebees preferred the infected plants’ brew.

That’s a small consolation for plants that have been stunted and blemished by cucumber mosaic virus. When infected tomato plants relied on self-fertilization, they produced fewer seeds on their own than their healthy counterparts. But when bumblebees helped out, infected plants’ seed production matched healthy ones.

The virus benefits, too, Carr says. By ensuring that sick plants can still reproduce, “those genes enabling susceptibility to the virus will stay in the population.” And plants that are resistant to the virus can’t gain the foothold that they could if all the sick plants died too soon.

The team also found that cucumber mosaic virus changes plants’ chemicals by disrupting their natural defenses against disease.

Normally, plants can identify when bits of foreign genetic material (like those from a virus) have worked their way inside. Specialized silencing enzymes snap into action and chop up the foreign invaders. But a cucumber mosaic virus protein called 2b disrupts this process by binding to the silencing molecules so that they can’t do their job, Carr and his colleagues found.

That lets the virus infect the plant more easily— and it also changes the way the plant turns its genes on and off. When the researchers tested a virus that didn’t have the gene for the 2b protein, the infected plants didn’t shift the chemicals they gave off like the plants infected with the fully functioning virus did.

The link between the 2b protein and volatile production is a major finding that could help scientists to better understand how viruses manipulate their hosts, says Andrew Stephenson, a biologist at Penn State University who wasn’t involved in the work.

But further research is needed to convincingly show that the increased pollination is really a fitness benefit for the plant, Stephenson says. Even though the infected plants produced more seeds, those seeds could be smaller and less likely to germinate, he says. And the shift in chemical production could lure aphids (which transmit the virus from plant to plant) just as much as bumblebees.  

Ya ain’t gonna wash it off, so breed it off: Salmonella growth on – not in – tomato plant surfaces

Foodborne illness-causing enteric bacteria are able to colonize plant surfaces without causing infection. We lack an understanding of how epiphytic persistence of enteric bacteria occurs on plants, possibly as an adaptive transit strategy to maximize chances of reentering herbivorous hosts.

wax.on.wax.offWe used tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) cultivars that have exhibited differential susceptibilities to Salmonella enterica colonization to investigate the influence of plant surface compounds and exudates on enteric bacterial populations.

Tomato fruit, shoot, and root exudates collected at different developmental stages supported growth of S. enterica to various degrees in a cultivar- and plant organ-dependent manner. S. enterica growth in fruit exudates of various cultivars correlated with epiphytic growth data (R2 = 0.504; P = 0.006), providing evidence that plant surface compounds drive bacterial colonization success. Chemical profiling of tomato surface compounds with gas chromatography-time of flight mass spectrometry (GC-TOF-MS) provided valuable information about the metabolic environment on fruit, shoot, and root surfaces. Hierarchical cluster analysis of the data revealed quantitative differences in phytocompounds among cultivars and changes over a developmental course and by plant organ (P < 0.002). Sugars, sugar alcohols, and organic acids were associated with increased S. enterica growth, while fatty acids, including palmitic and oleic acids, were negatively correlated.

We demonstrate that the plant surface metabolite landscape has a significant impact on S. enterica growth and colonization efficiency. This environmental metabolomics approach provides an avenue to understand interactions between human pathogens and plants that could lead to strategies to identify or breed crop cultivars for microbiologically safer produce.

Importance: In recent years, fresh produce has emerged as a leading food vehicle for enteric pathogens. Salmonella-contaminated tomatoes represent a recurrent human pathogen-plant commodity pair. We demonstrate that Salmonella can utilize tomato surface compounds and exudates for growth. Surface metabolite profiling revealed that the types and amounts of compounds released to the plant surface differ by cultivar, plant developmental stage, and plant organ.

food-art-tomatoDifferences in exudate profiles explain some of the variability in Salmonella colonization susceptibility seen among tomato cultivars. Certain medium- and long-chain fatty acids were associated with restricted Salmonella growth, while sugars, sugar alcohols, and organic acids correlated with larger Salmonella populations. These findings uncover the possibility of selecting crop varieties based on characteristics that impair foodborne pathogen growth for enhanced safety of fresh produce.

Environmental metabolomics of the tomato plant surface provides insights on Salmonella enterica colonization

Appl. Environ. Microbiol. May 2016 vol. 82 no. 10 3131-3142

Sanghyun Han and Shirley A. Micallef

http://aem.asm.org/content/82/10/3131.abstract?etoc

Ain’t gonna wash it off: On-farm food safety for produce is where it starts

Tomatoes have been implicated in various microbial disease outbreaks and are considered a potential vehicle for foodborne pathogens.

food-art-tomatoTraceback studies mostly implicate contamination during production and/or processing. The microbiological quality of commercially produced tomatoes was thus investigated from the farm to market, focusing on the impact of contaminated irrigation and washing water, facility sanitation, and personal hygiene.

A total of 905 samples were collected from three large-scale commercial farms from 2012 through 2014. The farms differed in water sources used (surface versus well) and production methods (open field versus tunnel). Levels of total coliforms and Escherichia coli and prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella Typhimurium were determined. Dominant coliforms were identified using matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry. No pathogens or E. coli were detected on any of the tomatoes tested throughout the study despite the high levels of coliforms (4.2 to 6.2 log CFU/g) present on the tomatoes at the market. The dominant species associated with tomatoes belonged to the genera Enterobacter, Klebsiella, and Citrobacter. Water used on the farm for irrigation considered not fit for purpose according to national agricultural irrigation standards, with high E. coli levels resulting from either a highly contaminated source water (river water at 3.19 log most probable number [MPN]/100 ml) or improper storage of source water (stored well water at 1.72 log MPN/100 ml). Salmonella Typhimurium was detected on two occasions on a contact surface in the processing facility of the first farm in 2012. Contact surface coliform counts were 2.9 to 4.8 log CFU/cm2.

Risk areas identified in this study were water used for irrigation and poor sanitation practices in the processing facility. Implementation of effective food safety management systems in the fresh produce industry is of the utmost importance to ensure product safety for consumers.

Microbiological food safety status of commercially produced tomatoes from production to marketing

Journal of Food Protection, Number 3, March 2016, Pages 392-406, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-15-300

N. van Dyk, W. de Bruin, E. M. du Plessis, and L. Korsten

http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/iafp/jfp/2016/00000079/00000003/art00006

Minnesota’s bad year of Salmonella, great year of surveillance

In 2015, Minnesota counted 973 people with state-confirmed Salmonella, the most since health officials started tracking in the early 1990s. Cases were up 35 percent over 2014, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, with 115 people affected by the outbreak linked to Chipotle.

tomato.traceability“It was a huge outbreak, the biggest salmonella outbreak [in this state] since 1994,” said Kirk Smith, the health department’s head of foodborne disease investigations.

The Chipotle case, along with a huge national outbreak last year involving cucumbers, highlights a growing problem: the spread of foodborne disease through produce.

Tomatoes connected to the Chipotle outbreak were traced back to a farm in Virginia, a big tomato-growing area linked to several salmonella outbreaks in the past 15 years.

Chipotle, hit by a series of foodborne illness outbreaks last year, did not return calls for comment.

Chipotle was cooperative in Minnesota’s investigation, Smith said, and analyzed its own supply chain data to determine that tomatoes linked to the outbreak likely came from a farm in Virginia.

According to the health department, the tomatoes were sold by Lipman Produce, an Immokalee, Fla.-based company that on its website bills itself as North America’s largest open field tomato grower.

Lipman’s CEO didn’t respond to requests for comment, but in a response to a lawsuit, the company denied that it was the source of the outbreak in Minnesota.

The Virginia tomatoes were sold to a produce wholesaler that packed or repacked them, and then moved on to a distributor that delivered them to Chipotle. Where exactly the tomatoes were tainted has not been identified, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it’s investigating.

Smith and other foodborne illness experts say contamination of produce usually occurs in unsanitary packing houses or in the fields, particularly through contaminated water.

From 1990 to 2010, there were 15 multistate salmonella outbreaks linked to raw tomatoes; four were traced to farms or packing houses in Virginia.

post-tomatocoverVirginia’s tomato industry is centered on its eastern shore, a peninsula framed by Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Its gull and geese populations have been fingered as possible carriers of salmonella, as have chicken farms and processors to the north.

Whatever the reason, surface water and sediment in the area appear to be “long-term reservoirs of persistent and endemic contamination of this environment,” according to a study published last year in Frontiers in Microbiology.

The largest U.S. foodborne incident in 2015 was a Salmonella Poona outbreak that sickened 888 people nationwide, killing six. That outbreak included 43 illnesses in Minnesota, though no deaths.

The culprit: cucumbers imported from Mexico. It was the third significant U.S. outbreak of salmonella linked to cucumbers in three years.

E. coli and Salmonella in tomatoes

Salmonella serovars have been associated with the majority of foodborne illness outbreaks involving tomatoes, and E. coli O157:H7 has caused outbreaks involving other fresh produce.

tomatoContamination by both pathogens has been thought to originate from all points of the growing and distribution process. To determine if Salmonella serovar Typhimurium and E. coli O157:H7 could move to the mature tomato fruit of different tomato cultivars following contamination, three different contamination scenarios (seed, leaf, and soil) were examined. Following contamination, each cultivar appeared to respond differently to the presence of the pathogens, with most producing few fruit and having overall poor health.

The Micro-Tom cultivar, however, produced relatively more fruit and E. coli O157:H7 was detected in the ripe tomatoes for both the seed- and leaf- contaminated plants, but not following soil contamination. The Roma cultivar produced fewer fruit, but was the only cultivar in which E. coli O157:H7 was detected via all three routes of contamination. Only two of the five cultivars produced tomatoes following seed-, leaf-, and soil- contamination with Salmonella Typhimurium, and no Salmonella was found in any of the tomatoes. Together these results show that different tomato cultivars respond differently to the presence of a human pathogen, and for E. coli O157:H7, in particular, tomato plants that are either contaminated as seeds or have a natural opening or a wound, that allows bacteria to enter the leaves can result in plants that have the potential to produce tomatoes that harbor internalized pathogenic bacteria.

 Movement of Salmonella serovar Typhimurium and E. coli O157:H7 to ripe tomato fruit following various routes of contamination

Microorganisms 2015, 3(4), 809-825

Deering, A.J.; Jack, D.R.; Pruitt, R.E.; Mauer, L.J.

http://www.mdpi.com/2076-2607/3/4/809

Salmonella on tomato leaves

Thirty years ago, I was a graduate student inoculating different lines of tomatoes with Verticillium wilt.

I hated it.

tomato.verticilliumSo I became editor of the student newspaper.

But those plant pathogens and tomatoes are still embedded in my DNA, so when I see an abstract like this, I gotta send it out.

Plant pathogen infection is a critical factor for the persistence of Salmonella enterica on plants. We investigated the mechanisms responsible for the persistence of S. enterica on diseased tomato plants by using four diverse bacterial spot Xanthomonas species that differ in disease severities. Xanthomonas euvesicatoria and X. gardneri infection fostered S. enterica growth, while X. perforans infection did not induce growth but supported the persistence of S. enterica. X. vesicatoria-infected leaves harbored S. enterica populations similar to those on healthy leaves. Growth of S. enterica was associated with extensive water-soaking and necrosis in X. euvesicatoria- and X. gardneri-infected plants. The contribution of water-soaking to the growth of S. enterica was corroborated by an increased growth of populations on water-saturated leaves in the absence of a plant pathogen. S. enterica aggregates were observed with bacterial spot lesions caused by either X. euvesicatoria or X. vesicatoria; however, more S. entericaaggregates formed on X. euvesicatoria-infected leaves as a result of larger lesion sizes per leaf area and extensive water-soaking. Sparsely distributed lesions caused by X. vesicatoria infection do not support the overall growth of S. entericaor aggregates in areas without lesions or water-soaking; S. enterica was observed as single cells and not aggregates.

Thus, pathogen-induced water-soaking and necrosis allow S. enterica to replicate and proliferate on tomato leaves. The finding that the pathogen-induced virulence phenotype affects the fate of S. entericapopulations in diseased plants suggests that targeting of plant pathogen disease is important in controlling S. enterica populations on plants.

 Plant Pathogen-Induced Water-Soaking Promotes Salmonella enterica Growth on Tomato Leaves

Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Volume 81, Number 23, December 2015

N Potnis, J Colee, J Jones, J Barak

64 sick: Tomatoes fingered as Salmonella source in Minnesota Chipotle outbreak

As the number of Americans sick from Salmonella linked to Mexican cucumbers reached 418, tomatoes have been identified as the source of a Salmonella outbreak linked to Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota.

lettuce.skull.e.coli.O145So much for the wife’s tomato and cucumber salad, with olive oil and salt.

The Minnesota Department of Health reports tomatoes have been identified as the source of the Salmonella Newport outbreak that has sickened dozens of people who ate at Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota since late August. Investigators are working with state and federal partners to trace the tomatoes back to the farm of origin.

Since the outbreak was reported last week, additional illnesses have been confirmed by MDH.  A total of 64 cases and 22 locations now have been linked to the outbreak [locations are listed below]. Nine people have been hospitalized; all are recovering. Meal dates for the cases range from August 16 to August 28 and people became ill between August 19 and September 3. The cases range in age from 10 to 69 years and are from 13 metro counties and several greater Minnesota counties.

“We expected to see additional cases because it can take up to 10 days for symptoms of Salmonella to appear, another few days to a week before people go to their doctors and the cases get reported to us,” said MDH Epidemiologist Dana Eikmeier. “However, there is no longer a risk of Salmonella from this particular product at Chipotle.”  The company has switched suppliers for its tomatoes and implicated product was removed from stores.

Food safety dominates first day of Florida tomato conference

Doug Ohlemeier of The Packer writes that during the opening day of the Florida Joint Tomato Conference, participants heard how the state’s tomato good agricultural practices and tomato best management practices are helping ensure safe shipments.

tomatoSince implementation of TGAPS, tomatoes haven’t experienced any recalls or outbreaks, Keith Schneider, associate professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition with the Gainesville-based University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said during a Sept. 8 tomato safety session.

He also noted the Sept. 4 multi-state salmonella outbreak of Mexican cucumbers distributed by San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce.

“All commodities are potential sources of foodborne illnesses,” Schneider said. “No one’s exempt. There is the recall in cucumbers for salmonella. Even things not traditionally associated with foodborne outbreaks (are subject to recalls). Those can be problematic. But I think we’re getting better with tomatoes and the record of tomatoes clearly speaks to that.”

In nine years of state tomato production inspections, the Tallahassee-based Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has issued 163 corrective actions, 120 failed audits and given 831 audit approvals, which means the farms and packinghouses passed the first time, said Steve Eguino, an agency certification specialist.

The average audit time is 3 1/2 hours and during the 2014-15 season, the agency conducted audits at 76 fields, five greenhouses, 81 packinghouses and 12 repacking operations, he said.

David Gombas, senior vce president of food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, said, “I’m getting tired of talking with folks that don’t have it. They did a mock recall last year with an auditor and think that’s enough, but it’s like deer in the headlights. It will always be more expensive doing it that way than having one in advance.”