Bruised Overripe Tomatoes and Shigella Flexneri Food Poisoning
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Bruised Overripe Tomatoes and Shigella Flexneri Food Poisoning

Tomatoes are not the normal vector of the bacteria Shigella Flexneri, but infected workers handling raw fruits and vegetables like tomatoes (especially overripe and bruised) can transmit this severe but curable illness. Typically, this illness comes from eating unwashed or improperly washed raw vegetables that have been exposed to animal fecal matter.


Tomatoes, Raw Food Safety and Fecal Contaminants

It was only several years ago (2008, et al) that worries over raw tomatoes and Salmonella bacteria was in the news. It followed similar reports in the two years prior involving raw bagged spinach.

spinach, tomato and mushroom salad (warm)

(image source)

The usual suspects were fecal-borne contaminants in the irrigation water, or direct contact with feral animal spoors in the produce field. Commercial vegetable farms are fenced in such a way to prevent wild animals (deer, pigs, raccoon & possums, etc.) from gaining access to the fields not only to prevent crop loss but to stave off potential fecal-borne cross-contamination from their deposited spoors.

While going through one of my file cabinets this morning I came across a small clipping (circa 2006) from a local newspaper from when I lived in New York. The clipping contained an image that at the time meant something for me, but on the back side of this snippet of paper was a partial review of a widespread Shigella Flexneri outbreak that was current news in New York City at the time.

Some 900 customers in Nassau County (a suburban county of the New York Metropolitan Area, Long Island) contracted a diarrheal illness after having eaten a meal at one of several restaurants. The speed of which reported illnesses flooded health care was notable; most all within a 24-hour period.

Symptoms for Food Poisoning

Ingestion of the Shigella bacteria can lead to diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps and fever anywhere from one to two days after being exposed. Anyone confirmed to be infected should not prepare or handle food that is intended to be consumed by others, and caregivers for the ill person needs to follow careful hygiene routines to prevent further spread of the disease.

Tomatoes - Source of the Food Poisoning

ripe red cherry tomatoes on the vine

(image source)

Several foods were associated with the reported illnesses, but the tomatoes had a high common denominator. The sick diners were diagnosed with having Shigella Flexneri, a gram-negative bacterium usually found in feces of animals.

The method of transmission is generally via consumption of unwashed or improperly cleaned raw contaminated foods although the transmission can progress to direct person-to-person contact such as via a handshake, or contact with infected surfaces like doorknobs, improperly washed cutlery, etc.

As it turned out from the investigation of what happened, a new supplier of produce was common to several of the restaurants reporting illnesses among their clientele. There was one produce supplier that had a worker in particular whom was found to test positive for the Shigella Flexneri bacterium. Here was the ‘Typhoid Mary’ carrier.

In the case of the personnel being the source of the outbreak, the conclusion of the investigation was a simple and logical one;

  • “ prevent such outbreaks, persons with shigellosis should be excluded from handling food at all points along the distribution chain.”

And from me whom once in the mid-90s had gotten very sick from eating improperly washed commercially-packaged raw leafy vegetables I also add this missive to farmers, packagers and food handlers everywhere; wash your hands often -and take a bath once in awhile!

red ripe tomatoes

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Comments (10)

Now you got me scared.

Easily treatable with common antibiotics. In fact, so common that unless the case is severe or the patient is very young/very old, often the health care practitioner will not issue antibiotics ...they do not want to risk creating a resistant strain of bacteria. Would prefer that the patient 'get well' naturally... But after a few days of diarrhea, fever and aches, gimme gimme gimme drugs!

lots of the people who work in greenhouses and picking tomatoes seasonally are transients, they dont have places to take baths. Keep that in mind when you buy fruit and veges from the store... and try to grow some of your own this year.

great article if not just a little scary! I eat loads of packaged, pre-washed salad which I normally just tip from the bag but it still could have been handled by several different people before I eat it... think I will start washing it myself!

My grandma used to buy whole packaged raw chicken, and in the sink basin with clean cool water and ONE DROP of Ivory brand Dish Detergent, pre-wash the chicken (and rinse thoroughly, of course) before stuffing and baking it. -The water turned a disgusting color... not just the expected blood and stuff, but some form of DIRT! On this note, I recall a study on packaged chicken sold in the supermarkets and three major brand name pre-packaged chicken (parts, not whole birds) were examined and the fluid that is typically in the package was on all brands found to be on average 45% FECAL JUICES (poop and urates -the latter being the solid equivalent of urine in birds!) YUK!!

OMG... I am so glad I haven't eaten meat for years!

You're advized to wash strawberries in soapy water too to remove bugs that are smaller than the seeds. Yuk, again.

Can remember when all those people got sick on Long Island as the news media around NYC made a big deal about it and it was scary.

Bruised tomatoes are a drag, and food poisoning is a supreme bummer.

This is exactly why I grow as much of my own food as I can....and wash that too! Excellent, albeit disturbing, article.