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Its Frankenfood V. 'The Killer Tomatoes'
Henry I. Miller
June 11, 2008

IT'S the organic-food industry's worst nightmare: The surest answers to "killer tomatoes" are "Frankenfood" and irradiation, both anathema to the "natural" crowd. 

Food poisoning from Salmonella Saintpaul bacteria in raw tomatoes and other produce has spread to at least 16 states - with more than 160 cases of illness. 

This is hardly the first "Salmonella tomatoes" outbreak - and won't be the last. Like many raw fruits and vegetables, tomatoes can harbor various potential pathogens. In 2006, E. coli-related illnesses traced to spinach and lettuce killed three Americans and caused some 300 illnesses. 

In fact, government estimates tell us that food contaminated with microorganisms causes 76 million cases of illness - marked by fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps - and 5,000 deaths a year in the United States. The most frequent culprits: the bacteria Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli 0157:H7, and caliciviruses, also known as the Norwalk and Norwalk-like viruses. 

Produce growers can't give us 100 percent safety. Modern farming operations - especially the larger ones - already employ strict standards and safeguards designed to keep food pathogen-free. And most often they do work: Americans' food is not only the least expensive, but also the safest, in the history of humankind. 

But there are limits. The only way to make a cultivated field completely safe from microbial contamination is to pave it over. But you can't eat asphalt, and we'd only be trading very rare agricultural mishaps for fender-benders. 

Food processors can't be perfect, either. No amount of washing will rid all pathogens from produce - for some contamination may occur not on the plant, but in it: At key stages of growth, microorganisms can enter a plant's vascular system. 

Irradiation of fresh food is one answer - but this important food-safety tool is vastly under-used, largely due to opposition from the organic food lobby and other food-kooks and to government over-regulation. 

"If even 50 percent of meat and poultry consumed in the United States were irradiated, the potential impact of food-borne disease would be a reduction [of] 900,000 cases and 300 deaths," predicted Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota. 

Yet irradiation is no panacea. It quite effectively kills bacteria and viruses - but it doesn't inactivate the potent toxins secreted by bacteria, such as staph and botulinum. 

The best answer is recombinant DNA technology, or gene-splicing - an advance the organic lobby has repeatedly vilified and rejected. 

With the exception of wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the plants in our diet have been genetically improved in some way, but it's now well within our power to modify plants' genes to bolster their resistance to microorganisms that cause food poisoning and to block the synthesis of the bacterial toxins. 

The technology can also make antibodies to be given to infected patients to neutralize the toxins. And it can produce therapeutic proteins (such as lactoferrin and lysozyme, which are found in human tears and breast milk) that are safe and effective treatments for diarrhea, the primary symptom of food poisoning. 

For organic marketers, the irony is more bitter than fresh-picked radicchio. The technologies that offer the best ways to safeguard their customers are the ones they've fought hardest to forestall and confound. 

Will the "attack of the killer tomatoes" move the organic lobby to rethink its opposition to "Frankenfood" and irradiation - and let science, common sense and decency trump ideology? 

I'm not betting the farm on it. 

Henry I. Miller is a physician and a fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993.

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