In the past two months, we in the US have seen tomatoes disappear from our grocery stores, vanished from the menus of our favorite restaurants, and filled our landfills with millions of fresh, juicy, goodness. Why?
Because the US Food and Drug Administration, on June 7, 2008 declared that three varieties of tomatoes had been contaminated with the deadly Salmonella bacteria. Let it be known, that the FDA has now cleared all types of tomatoes currently on the market and declared them safe to eat. But is is too little, too late?
In the days and weeks after the FDA warning of a salmonella outbreak, grocers across the country were forced to trash crate after crate of fresh tomatoes, restaurants were forced to remove fresh tomato based dishes from their menus, and prudent shoppers confused as to which tomatoes were declared unsafe (canned and jarred tomatoes were never declared a risk) stopped buying tomatoes altogether. What has resulted is sickening to the tomato industry, pun fully intended!
The truth is, the FDA has actually never found the root cause of the recent salmonella outbreak. In fact, after thousands of tests on tomatoes, and now jalapenos and cilantro, the FDA has not found a single salmonella bacterium of the same type as that connected to the outbreak.
"If they're going to do that kind of economic damage to a commodity group, then they should have a very firm foundation for making that determination," says Tom Nassif, the chief executive of the Western Growers Association.
By issuing warnings to the national public without having anything concrete to base their suspicions on has devastated the entire tomato farming industry. Farmers whose crops were still on the vines and just ready to be harvested when the announcement was made, instead were forced to plow under their fields and destroy millions of dollars worth of tomatoes that were not able to be sold. Truck loads of already harvested, yet undelivered tomatoes sat rotting. Somewhere between $100 to $250 MILLION has been lost to an entire industry because of the FDA's gaff. And they are well aware of the damage they have caused.
"The fact we cannot prove they were contaminated is going to stay with us forever," said David Acheson, FDA food-safety chief. As a personal note, gee it's swell that the FDA feels guilty about the debacle. But in the mean time, tomato growers are losing, at the very least, their entire seasons revenue, at most- there's no telling. After more than 18 months, spinach growers are still trying to recover from their own salmonella scare. And now, fearful shoppers are avoiding other fresh fruits and vegetables.
How can growers survive such devastating and irresponsible FDA reports? For one thing, the tomato industry is fighting back, demanding the agency be required to actually find a piece of contaminated fruit or vegetable before issuing such wide sweeping warnings. They are also demanding compensation to the growers, packers, and other industries greatly affected by the FDA warning.
And what can we do to help? Simple, buy tomatoes! Return to farmers' markets and load up on the fresh locally grown produce. Visit our favorite restaurants and savor our favorite fresh tomato-based dishes! Find all those tomato recipes that we've collected, and always meant to try, and actually make them!
For my part, I started with making my favorite pizza. A crispy delight of fresh tomatoes, basil, and goat cheese. Future recipes include a tomato tart, vodka penne with fresh tomatoes, a salsa study, tomato jelly, and a four-cheese omelet with fresh pico de gayo.
The Recipe Challenge:
I challenge all you lovers of the juicy red fruit (yes, tomatoes are a fruit, not a vegetable) to come up with your very best tomato recipes and share them with us. And while we're add it, let's add spinach, cilantro, and jalapenos to the challenge (all ingredients need not be in the same recipe). Leave a link to your recipe in the comments section here on this post to share. Or better yet, post your recipe on tastespotting and tag it "Tomato Challenge". Your prize for the best recipe... bragging rights and the satisfaction of supporting the family owned produce growers that provide us with fresh ingredients every day.
Tomato Basil and Goat Cheese Pizza
(serves 6-8 according to dough package, or serves just me according to my love for pizza!)
1 tube pizza dough (or dough from you favorite pizzeria)- thawed but chilled
4 plump large Roma (or favorite variety) tomatoes- sliced
1/2 c fresh basil- chopped
1 medium red onion- sliced into rings no thicker than 1/4 inch
1 c pine nuts- toasted
2/3 c fresh basil and pine nut pesto
1 tbsp dried oregano
1/ tbsp dried fennel seed
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper- to taste
In a dry skillet over low to medium heat, lightly toast pine nuts until you just begin to smell them. Remove from heat and spread out on a paper towel to cool. Heat oven to 350F degrees. On a lightly floured surface, roll out pizza dough to your desired thickness, repairing any holes. (Round or square doesn't matter.) Press 1/2 cup of pine nuts into dough, spreading evenly. Brush the dough and pine nuts with extra virgin olive oil. Spread pesto evenly over dough. Lay out slices of tomato to completely cover the dough. Layer on red onions. sprinkle with oregano, fennel seed, and remaining pine nuts. Salt and pepper to taste. Crumble fresh goat cheese over the entire pizza. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Transfer pizza to a pizza stone or un-greased pizza pan/cookie sheet. Bake until dough is a golden brown on the bottom and cheese has softened and browned slightly. Time will vary according to the thickness of crust. Serve hot with your favorite beer or wine. (Although cold pizza for breakfast is money!)