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Tomato growers welcome FDA ruling

Tomato lovers got good news this week when the Food and Drug Administration said that tomatoes were OK to eat again after an outbreak of salmonella poisoning in June.

But if consumers are careful in what they choose, tomatoes, along with other fruits and vegetables, can be safe at all times.Buying produce that is grown in the United States usually means that the fruits and veggies that everyone loves are safe. Federal laws that govern how the produce is grown, picked, packed and shipped keep these products safe.

Tim McCarthy, chief executive officer for Central California Tomato Growers, said that his co-op ships about 2 million 25-pound cartons of fresh market tomatoes a year.

"We follow a standard food safety protocol," McCarthy said, adding that he believes that domestic tomatoes are one of the safest in the world.

Fresh market tomatoes grown in Merced County were worth about $81 million in 2006, and McCarthy said that his co-op's growers grow about 1,600 acres.

Tomatoes grown for for the fresh market are hand-harvested, unlike processing tomatoes. After harvesting, the tomatoes are sent to the packing shed and flumed out of the truck in a bath of chlorinated water. Then the red orbs are brushed and washed in another rinse and then a food-grade wax is put on the tomato.

Once the tomatoes are graded and sorted, they are ripened with ethylene gas for about four days before being shipped to market.

"Domestic tomatoes weren't the problem (in the disease outbreak)," McCarthy said. "We've been doing this since 1941, and if you are eating a domestic product, you are pretty safe."

But finding those domestically grown tomatoes can be hard. Many local grocery stores don't carry produce from the United States, using instead veggies and fruits from other countries.

"They don't have the oversight, the laws that we have," McCarthy said. "We have such a strict food safety protocol, it's pretty bullet-proof."

McCarthy urged consumers to talk to their grocery store managers about stocking local produce. "It's embarrassing to walk into a store and see Mexican tomatoes when 7 million boxes of California tomatoes are shipped during the summer."While a lot of people are worried about the fruits and vegetables they are eating, getting the health benefits of tomatoes through processed fruit is 100 percent safe, according to Ross Siragusa, president of the California Tomato Growers Association.Siragusa said that processing tomatoes are handled differently from fresh market. The tomatoes are harvested mechanically and not picked until they are ripe.

"These tomatoes are bred specifically for characteristics that are needed for cooking," Siragusa said. The tomatoes are also hardier, because they have to harvested mechanically. And processing tomatoes are also planted by schedule, so that they can go to the processor in a continuous stream from June through October.

"These tomatoes are safe," Siragusa said. "They go through a heat-treating process that kills everything."For a lot of consumers, summer means a slice of a ripe, juicy tomato, and making sure that the tomato has been grown domestically can put illness worries to rest.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com

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