As one might expect by taking a look at this blog’s header graphic, I’ve been getting quite a bit of email about the tomato recall. I have been reading the stories, the analyses on various listserves and blogs, and the lists of precautionary measures.
I’m going to be honest with you. Banning spinach is one thing entirely. But tomatoes? Them’s fighting words.
The reality is this: the tomatoes that have been banned are the ones that, to be quite blunt about it, suck. Not that the ones on the “OK” list are all that great. I have bitten into more nasty-foul grape tomatoes from the grocery store than I care to count, and finally stopped buying them because I was so tired of the pop-bite-spit-into-trash-can routine I’d mastered in my office at lunchtime. There are amazing tomatoes and there are bad tomatoes, and life is too short for bad tomatoes.
But what I fear is the backlash against the good stuff. What’s going to happen this summer, when tomato season in the U.S. peaks, and people go to their local farmer’s markets and turn up their nose at the selection of Brandywines and Juliets? Because, to be honest, while I feel terrible for the 167 people (and probably more who have yet gone unrecognized) who have suffered from salmonella because they ate a bad tomato, I’d bet good money on the fact that they ate a bland, pale-red slice not worthy of the name TOMATO.
This is the worst unkindness of all, really. I’m a risky eater. I will eat street food in places that no one would recommend the eating of street food. I have most certainly eaten meat that was probably not in the pork-beef-chicken-lamb continuum, but it was highly spiced, so I couldn’t tell the difference anyway. I used to brush my teeth with the tap water in Nigeria (and yes, I realize I put myself at great health risk, but I was 11 and petulant and trust me, my father punished me well enough on the day he figured out I had been doing that, so there’s no need to yell at me now).
I have also suffered from food poisoning so bad I thought I would die. (It had nothing to do with Nigerian water. In fact, the only place I’ve gotten food poisoning? The U.S. of A.) Like I said before, I don’t wish that on anyone.
But it seems to me that by banning salsa at Baja Fresh, all anyone’s doing is raising the panic level. Instead, why don’t we take a look at the root causes of why salmonella, which used to be in the purview of chickens and eggs, has now crossed the road to crawl into the body of a tomato? Whether the problem is spinach, or tomatoes, or Jack in the Box burgers, maybe the problem here is not a particular ingredient or food item, but a sign of a larger, more fundamental weakness in our food system.
As for me, I’m going to continue eating tomatoes the way I have for at least the past few years: purchased from regional farmers (since I’m not currently harboring any plants of my own). Local, preferably heirloom, tomatoes. As far as I’m concerned, the pleasure of that first, ripe, summer tomato will far outweigh the miniscule risk that it might make me sick.