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Store-brought tomatoes will make me sick

June 12, 2008

These were three words I never thought I'd hear linked: "National Tomato Crisis."

Yet there was cable news dude standing in his "Situation Room," acting all panicky, as if zombies were rising from their graves and voting Republican.

Yes, I know it's the job of these folks to breathlessly make every spoiled turnip sound like a presidential assassination, but still, there was something in his voice that caught my attention. I don't know how many people have died from this crisis, but judging from the guy's tone, it must be in the thousands. National Tomato Crisis.

Talk about a bad day for ketchup.

Later in the day, I was in the grocery store, where the first thing you saw was a big display of tomatoes with "Attention Customer" signs posted all over the place, explaining the ins and outs of tomato contamination and tomato safety.

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So this is what our national food supply has come to: You have to read a scientific white paper before you're able to buy produce.

If ever you needed a reason to tap into the locally grown produce at the Washington County Farmers Market at Prime Outlets on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings, this is it. Not that I'm trying to hype our local farmers or anything. But at least you know where that food's been.

My own position is that if you eat a store-bought tomato, you basically deserve to get sick. I also have trouble seeing how a salmonella bacteria, or any other life form, can survive on one. It's like expecting a deer to survive on the surface of the moon.

The federal government, ever helpful, came out with a set of guidelines to help the consumer recognize the potentially sickening tomatoes. As I understand it, the tomatoes we need to watch out for are:

1. Those that are round.

2. Those that are not round.

All the rest are OK. So are cherry and grape tomatoes and "tomatoes that still have the vine attached."

Don't even get me started on that "vine attached" marketing trick that is somehow supposed to make a tomato look more authentic and assure us that it was indeed grown on a plant and not mass produced out of plastic in the basement of the Dow Chemical Co.

Great idea. If orchardists had only thought of this, we'd be buying peaches with the entire tree limb attached.

So the government's next "corrective action" probably will be to come out with some of those stupid public service jingles produced by the Ad Council.

If it's got a vine,

It's probably fine.

If it's round and red,

Your going to be dead.

Look, you and I can avoid tomatoes easily enough, but what's, say, an Italian restaurant supposed to do? Or Taco Bell, which uses the same five ingredients to produce an estimated 3,340 distinct food-like products. Taking tomatoes away from Taco Bell is like taking slobber away from a bulldog.

And speaking of dogs, I would be derelict not to mention the newspapers' contributions to our health and safety, particularly the tomato question-and-answer link in Wednesday's Washington Post, which includes the recommendation to "Wash hands with soap after handling ... pet feces."

You mean all these years that I've been licking my fingers I've been doing it wrong?

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324 or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on www.antpod.com.

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