A salmonella outbreak linked to raw tomatoes serves as a reminder to take extra care with summer fruits and vegetables. More than 20 people have been hospitalized as the government investigates the source of the tomatoes responsible for the illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Salmonella can be transmitted to humans when fecal material from animals or humans contaminates food. Symptoms are similar to the flu, but the poisoning can be fatal to young children, pregnant women and other people with weakened immune systems.
Properly cooking meat, poultry and eggs, and washing produce are generally the best methods to prevent illness.
While there is no way for consumers to detect salmonella (you can't smell, taste or see it), there are some things you can do reduce the risk:
Check your tomatoes
The Food and Drug Administration is advising people to eat only tomatoes not associated with the outbreak: cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached and tomatoes grown at home.
Preliminary data suggest that raw red plum, Roma, or round red tomatoes are the cause, according to the FDA.
"The best thing to do if you have those certain types of tomatoes, throw them away or take them back the grocery store," says Karen Blakeslee, an extension associate in the food science program at Kansas State.
For other tomatoes, wash thoroughly and cut away the part that is attached to the plant and the button on the other side, says Julie Miller Jones, a professor of nutrition and food science at The College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn. That part can carry a foodborne illness because it's a hard area and organisms can attach themselves to it, she says.
Cooking tomatoes at 145 degrees will kill salmonella.
Inquire at restaurants
Ketchup and cooked sauces are not affected by the outbreak. And several restaurants are not serving tomatoes — on Monday, McDonald's said it had stopped serving sliced tomatoes in its U.S. restaurants.
Blakeslee advises finding out what the restaurant has done in response to the outbreak.
If you are really concerned, tell the restaurant to leave the tomatoes off the sandwiches and salads, says Jones. She says even if you remove them once your order comes, the food could still be contaminated.
Report the illness
Many people misdiagnose salmonella poisoning as the flu, says Jones. Salmonella poisoning generally occurs hours after ingestion, she says, and involves symptoms such as abdominal cramps, headache, fever, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.
The CDC says symptoms generally appear 12 to 72 hours after infection. People should report a suspected foodborne illness to the local health department.
Wash all produce, whether organic or not, with cold running water, says Jones. Scrub them gently with your hands or with a vegetable brush. Remove outer layers of cabbage and lettuce.
Fruits should be washed, regardless of whether you are eating the peel, says Al Baroudi, president of Food Safety Institute (FSI) International. He says even if someone is peeling an orange, that person is touching part of the orange he is going to eat. (Bananas are an exception.)
Don't bother with a special vegetable wash, says Jones. She says studies show that it's not much better than water.
Wash hands, surfaces
Wash your hands with soap and water thoroughly before handling food, says Blakeslee. Wash your hands if you come in contact with pet feces, use the bathroom or change a baby's diaper.
Also wash cutting boards, counters and utensils to avoid cross-contamination. Avoid any kind of contact with raw meat when preparing fresh vegetables. Refrigerate sliced up fruits and vegetables.