Well not quite, perhaps. But Team Tomato does represent what passes for superheroes at the U.S. food safety regulatory agency.
The FDA’s surprisingly jaunty article about such a sober topic actually contains quite a bit of insight into tomato safety research. Calling a fresh tomato “more than just a tasty addition to a sandwich or salad,” the article said FDA scientists view the tomato as an “enigma.”
“Enigma” seems another comic book-worthy term, perhaps prompting a vision of an elusive and stealthy villain. Yes, but the villain is salmonella, not the round red fruit of the vine.
Subsequent paragraphs in the article speak of the “mystery of the tomato” (its vulnerability to contamination by salmonella) and Team Tomato’s efforts to reducing contamination early in tomato production.
The FDA’s account noted that from 1973 to 2010, there were 15 multistate outbreaks of illnesses attributed to salmonella contamination of raw tomatoes, with 12 of these outbreaks taking place since 2000. Those outbreaks resulted in nearly 2,000 confirmed illnesses and three deaths, with East Coast states hardest hit.
The meat of the article speaks about research by FDA microbiologist Rebecca Bell, lead researcher on the tomato team. Bell said the work on an experimental farm at Virginia Tech’s Agriculture and Research Extension Center has yielded promising results.
Collecting more than a thousand bacteria in the soil and water in search of a natural enemy of salmonella, Bell said researchers found one.
The name of the exalted bacterium is paenibacillus — the anti-salmonella bug could just as easily command respect as a comic book hero in its own right.
Bell said FDA will be working with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop an organic treatment containing paenibacillus that would kill salmonella and other harmful organisms.
The article talks about the efforts of Team Tomato to share their research with industry leaders, with an eye on developing “more effective and targeted agricultural practices that will improve the safety of fresh tomatoes.”
The story notes that research into quality of water is a key factor in controlling salmonella, suggesting the importance of using clean water to irrigate at planting or when applying pesticides.