Yikes! Tomatoes!


These tomatoes were eaten months ago—in Sicily.

One of my few guilty pleasures in terms of fast food is a local chain called Mighty Taco; I like their vegetarian hard shell tacos and a few other things on their menu we won’t get into. But yesterday when I stopped by for lunch, there was an official-looking notice plastered over the menu board—due to a salmonella scare, none of the red stuff would be included in any taco or burrito served for who knows how long. As you’ve probably read, beefsteak and Roma tomatoes are considered the likeliest to contain the deadly bacteria. Of course, at this time of year, they’re coming from Southern and Southwestern climes; local gardeners in Western New York won’t have any until at least August. (The actual source of the tomatoes that have caused 167 cases of salmonella poisoning has not been pinpointed.)

It makes me wonder how much home gardening protects us from these scares. Many of the articles I’ve seen on this mention that homegrown tomatoes would be safe, but I’m not sure that growing or raising food at home would automatically guard against everything; certainly home preserving can be very dangerous unless you know what you’re doing. With all the renewed interest in home gardens, some easily-accessed advice on how to maintain standards of hygiene in the home garden to help reduce microbial risks would come in handy. (Not insisting on fresh vegetables at all times of the year, wherever they come from, would probably help too.)

Check out yet another article on the joys of growing your own in today’s New York Times as Marion Burros discusses the economic advantages of home-produced food.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. One of the main advantages of growing your own food is that your garden is probably not located just down the road from some feedlot or chicken factory that will send e.coli or salmonella your way.

    Plus, home gardeners generally are smart enough not to dump fresh manure on their gardens at the beginning of the growing season. In my garden, the poop goes on in the fall and then has five or so months to break down into harmlessness.

    In healthy garden soil, there are actually organisms that produce antibiotics. They are working hard to clean up your dirt. So I have no qualms about pulling a radish out of my ground, brushing it off on my pants and eating it.

    Have you ever HEARD of anyone getting sick from their own produce? Didn’t think so.

  2. I ditto Michele’s comments. The salmonella is not on the tomatoes (or lettuce…remember last year?) it is inside the tomatoes, taken up through the root system into the plant itself. The soil is so overwhelmed with bacteria that it cannot break it down naturally.

    And this includes so-called organic farms. Your soil is only as organic as the environment around it permits it to be.

    Buy local and small when you can. Grow your own, if possible.

  3. To be fair, it would probably be less publicized if you got sick from your own food, since it might be hard to narrow down the agent, and it’s probably not terribly newsworthy. Still, I do feel better about eating my own stuff, and local small-farm stuff.

  4. I don’t believe that it has been demonstrated that the E.coli in this case is, in fact, inside the tomato flesh, as suzq suggested. It has been demonstrated that E. coli can invade plant tissues, yes, as demonstrated during the lettuce episode last year. It seems far more likely that contamination occurred during harvesting and handling, but if there’s a link to information showing otherwise, I’d really like to see it.

  5. What’s been really curious to me about this whole scare is that the cherry, grape and “on-the-vine” tomatoes are being exempted. I hear this, but I hear nothing about why these aren’t in the scare. Has anyone else learned more? Are they identifying specific growers? In Seattle, the “on-the-vine” tomatoes tend to come out of Canada but the grapes and cherries out of Mexico. Seems a little random.

    Amid the coldest Seattle June since 1890-something, I’m thankful I kept my shantyhouse greenhouse up this late, and didn’t move my all of my tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and pumpkins out into the garden yet. The ones in the exposed beds are looking a bit sad after a week in the 50s! (Anyone in the East want to stir up their heat with our cool?…I wish we could!)

  6. Just a plug for home food preservation — really, it isn’t that scary. I put up pickles, fruit preserves, jams and freeze lots of blanched greens every year. Oh — and make yogurt from raw milk I buy from a local rancher who keeps cows (and raises the most delicious eggs you’ve ever eaten). If you pay attention to sterilizing your jars, and follow the basic instructions available from the canning jar folks or from any number of good books, it’s really pretty easy to preserve the nice clean produce from your own yard.

  7. P.S. Elizabeth, I love the photo of the Sicilian tomatoes. The tomatoes I had in Southern Italy last year were so extraordinary–well, I felt I’d never eaten tomatoes before.

    I also learned how to make a really great tomato sauce from my eating experience in Naples. Roast tomatoes until soft with olive oil and salt, and pull off the skins. Then use boatloads more olive oil to saute absurd amounts of garlic. Add more salt, a handful of rosemary or basil, toss with pasta–and eat, eat, eat.

  8. Just now I checked the Times to get an update on a different issue, and noticed that the “Banking on Gardening” article is currently Number 5 on the list of the 10 most E-mailed/blogged/searched articles, ranked between OpEd pieces by Number 4 Maureen Dowd and Number 6 David Brooks! Don’t wanna make a political statement here, but it appears that the people are hungry.

    Lois, Thursday, 6-12, 12:25am

  9. I’m not absolutely sure, but I don’t believe the salmonella bacteria goes into the tomato fruit through the plant’s roots.
    I think it is a contact contamination, that then gets beneath the skin. Mexican tomatoes,
    which these likely were due to the early dates involved, get very warm, even hot, before they are picked. Then they are taken
    to sheds to be washed off. By this
    time they are also somewhat dehydrated. Their skin, or epidermis, is stretched, and the stomata also, which are like pores.
    Any salmonella in fecal matter in the rinse water, which is commonly from lakes or rivers rather than wells, and thus subject to feces, will be absorbed with the water, through
    these hungry stomata, so to speak.
    It’s like dry skin. This is I believe how the salmonella bacilli gets into the tomato.
    This is also why one cannot wash it off. However, cooking it kills
    it completely, even sauteeing.
    Biggest irony to me is that most of the infected tomatoes are paste
    and sauce types, much less likely to be eaten fresh, unless the consumer doesn’t know the differences between varieties or types. In any case, best not to eat any raw tomatoes, except homegrown or from a very reputable
    farmers market. I mean, would you knowingly take salmonella tainted Romas home to cook dead the bacteria? Not likely.
    Still early snough in northern states to put out transplants, especially of early hybrids.
    We have run out of mail order plants but still have hundreds at our factory outlet here in Warminster, PA.

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