On June 19, five new salmonella cases were reported to the Centers for Disease Control in Pennsylvania. The FDA later confirmed that all those cases could be linked back to tainted tomatoes.
The new cases follow reports that McDonalds, WalMart, Taco Bell and many other chains have halted the sale of fresh tomatoes. Naturally, this caused a bit of a scare to families trying to buy groceries or students wanting to get a barbecue together. But this fear could have a positive effect for Pennsylvania that some may not have anticipated.
According to Stacy Kriedeman, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Pennsylvania tomatoes were not the source of sickness. In fact, officials believe two of the victims were infected outside the state.
Bad for those infected. But good for local farmers who say consumers are finally starting to get it. "There is definitely a strong interest from the consumer in knowing where their product comes from," says Joe Stahl, co-owner of Harvest Lane Farm in Manheim Township.
Chris Petersheim, owner of Paradise Organics and supplier of the Weavers Way Grocery Co-op in West Mount Airy, agrees. "Business has been as usual, with increased sale of tomatoes," he says.
Salmonella is an animal-born illness. The only way tomatoes get infected is through cross-contamination that, according to White Dog's Buy Fresh Buy Local Director of External Relations Jessica Cronin-Connolly, only comes from "irresponsible corporate farming practices."
"The salmonella scare is the product of the dominant global food system that produces nutritionally deficient food for the sake of profit, not people," Cronin-Connolly says. And this isn't the first time.
Last year, an outbreak of E. coli nearly crippled the sale of spinach. The California Department of Health reported that the source of the disease came from pig excrement and a leak in livestock contaminants into the groundwater. Despite the localized contamination, many farmers were forced to let spinach crops rot in the field.
"The FDA does not enjoy widespread trust amongst consumers," says Jean MacKenzie, produce manager for Weavers Way. "I still meet people who won't buy spinach."
But tomato farmers in Pennsylvania aren't worried. "We have no livestock on our farm at all. We use no raw manure," Petersheim says. "We are all produce ... and one cat. That's it."
Not only are many of Philadelphia's produce suppliers organic, small and family-owned, Pennsylvania farmers enjoy added assistance from buy local communities and farm-friendly legislators helping to get the word out about the safety and quality of local produce.
On June 12, when the salmonella scare first hit, Governor Rendell's office put out a news release in which Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff said, "Pennsylvania tomatoes were not the source of the recent salmonella contamination, and Pennsylvanians should know that our tomatoes are safe. I urge all consumers to seek out locally grown, fresh tomatoes of all types, including round, roma and plum red tomatoes."
The Department of Agriculture also introduced the PA Preferred program, a label and marketing system used to identify Pennsylvania produce from, ya know, all the rest.
Assisting Harrisburg on the local front is White Dog's Buy Fresh Buy Local, a community organization devoted to connecting your salad to the farmer who grew it.
"A strong local food system encourages reinvestment in the local economy, preserves the environment, improves community health, and cultivates community relationships," Cronin-Connolly says. "Plus, local farm-fresh food just plain tastes better."
As for the farmers, they're just trying to keep up with demand.
According to the Department of Agriculture, the height of tomato season is right around the corner.
But if you're still not convinced, here are a few quick tips to avoid tainted produce:
Even though Pennsylvania has been declared a safe tomato state, you can take extra precaution by sticking to the safe bets. The FDA has declared certain types of the tomatoes not part of the outbreak.
Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached are all completely clean.