Michael Pollan is an entertainer from a long line of American hucksters.
He’s not a professor, he’s a decent writer of food porn.
(Those with the least qualifications most actively seek the perceived credibility of a title.)
When his biggest soundbite is “I’d never eat a refrigerated tomato,” the absolutism shines through like any other spoiled demagogue.
Dan Charles of NPR fell into the gotta-be-cool trap without knowing shit, but eventually admitted it.
Charles says, There’s a laboratory at the University of University of Florida, in Gainesville, that has been at the forefront of research on tomato taste. Scientists there have been studying the chemical makeup of great-tasting tomatoes, as well as the not-so-great tasting ones at supermarkets.
“There’s a lot of things wrong with tomatoes right now,” says Denise Tieman, a research associate professor there. “We’re trying to fix them, or at least figure out what’s going wrong.”
These researchers studied this refrigeration question. They looked at what happened when a tomato goes into your kitchen fridge, or into the tomato industry’s refrigerated trucks and storage rooms.
Some components of a tomato’s flavor were unaffected, such as sugars and acids. But they found that after seven days of refrigeration, tomatoes had lower levels of certain chemicals that Tieman says are really important. These so-called aroma compounds easily vaporize. “That’s what gives the tomato its distinctive aroma and flavor,” she says.
The researchers also gave chilled and unchilled tomatoes to dozens of people to evaluate, in blind taste tests, “and they could definitely tell the difference,” says Tieman. The tomatoes that weren’t chilled got better ratings.
The scientists also figured out how chilling reduced flavor; cold temperatures actually turned off specific genes, and that, in turn cut down production of these flavor compounds.
Tieman speculates that someday scientists will figure out how to keep those genes turned on, even when chilled, so the tomato industry can have it both ways: They can refrigerate tomatoes to extend shelf life, without losing flavor.
Thankfully, chilling didn’t seem to affect nutrition – the chilled tomatoes were just as nutritious as the non-refrigerated ones.
As significant as the results are, they probably won’t end the great tomato refrigeration debate.
“It’s not so clear cut,” says Daniel Gritzer, culinary director at SeriousEats.com, a food website. Two years ago, he did a series of blind taste tests with many different tomatoes, in New York and in California.
“Sometimes I found that the refrigerator is, in fact, your best bet,” says Gritzer.
That’s especially true for a tomato that’s already ripe and at peak flavor, he says. If you let that tomato sit on your counter, it’ll end up tasting worse.
Gritzer wrote a long blog post, detailing his results, and got a flood of reaction. “Some people wrote to say, ‘Hey, this is what I’ve always found, I’m so glad you wrote this,'” Gritzer says. “And then, a lot of people pushed back saying, ‘You’re insane, you don’t know what you’re talking about.'”
And when the hockey kids call me Doug, I say that’s Dr. Doug, I didn’t spend six years in evil hockey coaching land to be called Mister.
Information collected from 65 students, coaches and parents indicated that consumption of milk was the only exposure statistically associated with the illness, DHS spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said.
For instance, the report said that some of the 38 people sickened at the dinner did not eat chicken, that 32 drank unpasteurized milk, and that six others drank milk consumed from a store-bought jug that could have contained pasteurized or unpasteurized milk.
Also, DATCP staff collected cow manure specimens from the Reeds’ cows and genetic fingerprinting proved that the bacteria that caused the illness at the dinner was the same bacteria strain found on the Reeds’ farm, Miller said.
But it’s the Salmonella-in-cucumbers outbreak – publicly unknown until a week ago — that reveals how deep interests influence.
An 18-week Salmonella outbreak linked to fresh cucumbers in 2014 sickened at least 275 people across 29 U.S. states, and killed one man.
Several of us in the food safety world – and probably the cucumber-consuming world – were left wondering, why didn’t we know about this?
Here’s the explanation from Dr. Bob (Bob Whitaker, chief science officer at the U.S. Produce Marketing Association; if anyone calls me Dr. Doug, I glare, and say, that’s Dr. Evil to you; I didn’t spent seven years in Evil University to be Mr. Evil):
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) today. Anything with “morbidity” and “mortality” in the title is probably not going to rank highly on your general reading list and this weekly report was fairly typical of the reports published by CDC; highly technical and detailed, very informative, but probably targeted to a fairly specific audience.
So mere mortals are too dumb to understand?
Unfortunately, the process of identifying the cause of an illness outbreak and then further identifying how the people became ill and where that product originated from involves, as a first step, time consuming reporting of patient sample microbiology from local communities to states and perhaps up to the federal level. Often the process of just collecting this type of information and recognizing that there may be an illness outbreak exceeds the shelf life of our perishable products. Once an outbreak has been recognized, the epidemiological traceback or the process of determining what people might have come in contact with to make them ill can begin.
Epidemiology involves patient surveys, case control studies and correlation coefficients and can be time consuming and may yield multiple potential contamination vehicles. Finally, once potential food vehicles are identified, a traceback can be conducted to learn where patients might have obtained or consumed a specific food and investigators can work back to where the food was ultimately grown, harvested, packed or processed. Once production locations are identified, investigators can take microbial samples in an attempt to match any strains from the production environment to those isolated clinically from patients or in some limited cases from the food itself. Often by the time all of these vitally necessary steps have been completed, the crop is long gone and direct proof for how the contamination occurred or the source of the contamination is impossible to ascertain. Such was the case described by this Salmonella outbreak related to cucumbers.
CDC also disclosed that they employed consultations with industry experts early on in their investigation to gather information about industry practices, crop production cycles in the suspected region and product distribution. This is a positive step and is the result of a great deal of effort by the industry and CDC to determine how to engage industry to better inform investigations.
More accurate and rapid epidemiological investigations will ultimately help our industry determine what went wrong when these unfortunate illness outbreaks occur and are assigned to a produce item. This will help us direct research efforts aimed at identifying mitigation steps that can reduce the risk of further occurrences and assist operators in building improved risk and science-based food safety programs.
So why wasn’t the public informed there were a bunch of sick people?
Kirk Smith, epidemiology supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Health, told the Washington Post four years ago it’s rare for scientists investigating foodborne illness outbreaks to test the exact food suspected of carrying pathogens. By the time symptoms occur and a foodborne illness is reported and confirmed, the product in question has likely been consumed or has exceeded its shelf-life and been thrown away.
Instead, scientists, like detectives, interview victims, collect data, analyze patterns and match food “fingerprints” to determine the likely source of an outbreak.
“Epidemiology is actually a much faster and more powerful tool than is laboratory confirmation.”
As we have written, often during an outbreak of foodborne illness there are health officials who have data indicating that there is a risk, prior to the public. During the lag period between the first public health signal and some release of public information there are decision makers who are weighing evidence with the impacts of going public.
There is no indication in the literature that consumers benefit from paternalistic protection decisions to guard against information overload.