Food Safety Fears Rising in U.S. as Tomatoes Become Latest Scare

By Syantani Chatterjee and Erin Zureick | June 11, 2008

Whether it’s Salmonella in tomatoes or E. coli-tainted spinach, outbreaks of food-borne illness are scaring people away from some foods and shaking their confidence in U.S. food safety procedures.

“Food in the U.S. is all kinds of unsafe,” said Arjuna Balasooriya, 35, on Tuesday as he left lunch at a Souplantation in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena, which closed for a week last year due to a Shigella bacteria outbreak.

“You’re always running scared,” wondering whether the food is contaminated by bacteria, genetically modified or sourced from areas with poor health and safety records, he said.

Like many other people who spoke with Reuters Tuesday, the banker said he is not buying or eating tomatoes following news that an outbreak of a rare strain of Salmonella had sickened 145 people who ate round, Roma or plum tomatoes.

“I’ll wait for a while for the air to clear up to be safe, at least a month,” he said, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has identified California and 25 other tomato-supplying states and countries as not being associated with the outbreak.

McDonald’s Corp, the world’s biggest restaurant chain, has pulled raw sliced tomatoes from its sandwiches and has no immediate plans to bring them back.

Chipotle Mexican Grill, on the other hand, is making plans to start returning safely sourced tomatoes to its restaurants later this week.

Larry Davidson, 57, an insurance underwriter from Chicago who avoids food that is subject to recalls or health scares, said the latest concern about tomatoes has not kept him away from any restaurants, just certain menu items.

Still, “I don’t plan to buy any (tomatoes) until the problems are fixed,” Davidson said.

FOOD FEARS

Over the last few years, consumers have digested reports of tainted spinach, peanut butter and pot pies.

In the 2006 spinach outbreak, three people died and more than 200 fell ill after being infected with E. coli.

The outbreaks since 2006 have led to dozens of hearings and proposals from the fresh produce industry and the FDA looking for tougher federal safety standards.

Beyond that, the battle over genetically modified food continues to rage. Earlier this year, processing plant concerns spawned the largest-ever U.S. meat recall. And then there is China, which sold the United States tainted pharmaceuticals and pet food that caused human and animal deaths.

Bob Goldin, executive vice president at restaurant consulting firm Technomic, said restaurants tend to bounce back pretty quickly after a food safety scare, but he worries about what seems to be the rising frequency of high-profile cases.

“It used to be every couple years and now it seems that they are becoming more common,” he said.

“I think it’s going to start to unnerve some consumers,” said Goldin, who expects that they will demand more regulatory oversight.

A new poll commissioned by Deloitte Consulting pointed to growing concerns about food safety.

Out of 1,100 respondents, 76 percent were more concerned about the food they eat than five years ago while 73 percent believed the number of food-related recalls have risen in the past year.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents stopped eating a particular food, temporarily or permanently, following a recall.

But some have a stronger stomach than others.

“I’m not usually very careful,” said Pete Gelvin, 36, a tax accountant from Chicago. “I guess it depends on the level of the scare.”

“If it’s something major like Mad Cow Disease, then definitely. If it’s something that would just … give me a stomach ache, it’s not a big deal,” he said.

(Additional reporting and writing by Lisa Baertlein, editing by Richard Chang)

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