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US: NC State joins with FDA to study salmonella in tomatoes

A team of NC State University scientists has partnered with the US Food and Drug Administration to investigate how salmonella contaminates a commonly eaten crop: tomatoes.

The study aims to better understand the relationship between salmonella, potential environmental reservoirs for the bacteria and commercial tomato production.

“The idea would be to find out if this bacteria is there, and if it’s there, where did it come from and how can we control it?” said Dr. Otto Simmons, an NCSU research assistant professor working on the study.

Salmonella is a bacterium that can contaminate food and make people sick through a form of food poisoning. Healthy adults who are infected experience unpleasant symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, vomiting and abdominal cramps. Symptoms among the very young, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems can be severe or fatal.

For more than a decade, tomatoes have been linked to outbreaks of salmonellosis, the food poisoning caused by the salmonella bacterium. Although there has never been an outbreak of tomato-related salmonellosis in North Carolina, there have been outbreaks associated with tomatoes grown in nearby States such as Virginia and Florida.

“There’s no reason to think we’d be any more or less at risk than other states, depending on production practices and the things that we don’t know,” said Dr. Chris Gunter, an assistant professor of horticultural studies at NCSU and one of the study’s investigators. “That’s what we’re trying to find out more about.”

Tomato farm samples

The study is entering its second of a three-year collaboration with the FDA, which funds the study. The FDA has previously investigated salmonella in other states and approached NCSU in late 2011 with the collaboration proposal.

The effort looks at plots growing on three sites in North Carolina. A graduate student, Diane Ducharme, collects soil, plant, leaf, tomato and water samples from the sites. Ducharme has a farming background as the coordinator of Good Agricultural Practices and an NC Cooperative Extension associate.

The study is still in its preliminary phases, including data collection, and does not yet have findings to report.

“The main beneficiaries of this are not only the public, who might consume them, but also the farmers who would be proactive in using this information to help better protect public health,” Simmons said.

The study will also look at nonpathogenic E. coli bacteria present in the water samples – an indication of fecal contamination that could be indicative of pathogens such as salmonella – and the type of salmonella pathogens in the environment, if any are found.

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