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Water may be suspect in tainted tomatoes

Pick a tomato in the blazing sun and plunge it straight into cold water. If that happened on the way to market, it might be contaminated. Too big of a temperature difference can make a tomato literally suck water inside the fruit through the scar where its stem used to be. If salmonella happens to be lurking on the skin, that is one way it can penetrate and, if the tomato is not eaten right away, have time to multiply. This newest salmonella outbreak is the 14th blamed on tomatoes since 1990. There is a growing lists of nasty outbreaks in raw vegetables and fruit: E. coli in spinach and lettuce. Hepatitis A in green onions. Cyclospora in raspberries. Salmonella in cantaloupe. Shigella in parsley. Water sources, worker hygiene and wildlife or domestic animals near fields are frequent culprits because they involve points where safety systems can easily break down. The FDA wants the authority to set mandatory safe-handling rules, what it calls "preventive controls," for growers and suppliers of foods linked to repeated outbreaks of serious illness, such as tomatoes and leafy greens. Congress hasn't yet acted on that request. "We need them, we've asked for them, and we don't yet have them." Budget woes mean the FDA's inspections of food-producing facilities have plummeted by 56 percent between 2003 and last year. But the FDA "is not arguing that you can inspect your way out of these problems. The critical point is to build safety upfront, not load up inspection at the end."

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