Thursday, February 25, 2010

What Makes a Tomato "Low Mold" Versus "High Mold" Anyway?

The last few days have seen lots of food news, including plenty of stories about a decade of dirty dealing in the tomato industry. California-based SK Foods and individuals from such well-know food processors as Kraft Foods, Safeway, and Frito-Lay were involved in all sorts of questionable activities, the end-result of which was that "high-mold" tomatoes made it into products (that we consumers then purchased and ingested) that should only have contained "low-mold" tomatoes.

Which raises the obvious question: what makes a tomato "high" or "low" mold? For an answer to that question we go to the Food and Drug Administration's Defect Levels Handbook, the guide to what defines an "actionable" defect in a regulated product, like tomatoes. The good news? An excess of mold in tomato products is considered an "aesthetic" defect rather than a "potential health hazard," meaning that although the defect is "offensive to the senses" it is not likely to make you sick.

How dangerous is this mold? Well according to Keith Ito, a safety specialist at the University of California, Davis' food preservation laboratory: "Several varieties of mold can grow on tomatoes and, although people should try to avoid eating them, they aren't dangerous ... [Those] normal spoilage molds" are a sign that tomatoes are overripe or have begun rotting in the field, he said."

If you're the kind of person that likes to believe processed foods are basically pure, I would recommend skipping the Defect Levels Handbook. I don't know about you, but it frightens me that there is even such thing as an "acceptable" level of "rodent filth" in my peanut butter...

(photo credit to Food Safety News for the gross moldy tomato;  credit for the Ito quote to Scripps and the Sacramento Bee)

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