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How Restaurants Handle Tomatoes

This page shows the study purpose, design, results, conclusions, and recommendations in plain language for the EHS-Net study titled Tomato-handling Practices Study.

The findings and recommendations from this project are also in fact sheet format [PDF - 286 KB].

Citations for more EHS-Net publications are available by Study Topic or by Citation.

Photo of whole tomatoes.

Study Problem

In recent years, at least 12 Salmonella foodborne illness outbreaks have been linked with fresh tomatoes. Investigations suggest that the tomatoes probably got tainted early, such as at the farm or during processing. In most cases, the tomatoes that caused the outbreaks were eaten in restaurants.

Researchers have suggested that how restaurant workers handle tomatoes may lead to germ growth on tomatoes. It may also spread germs from tainted tomatoes to other tomatoes. To prevent foodborne illness caused by tainted tomatoes, we must find out how workers handle tomatoes.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises restaurants on how to prevent germs on produce.

FDA advises

  • Keeping fresh produce (including tomatoes) apart from other refrigerated foods.
  • Washing whole tomatoes under running water before using them.
  • Not soaking tomatoes in standing water.
  • Keeping wash water temperature 10°F warmer than the tomatoes.
  • Refrigerating cut tomatoes at 41°F or less.
  • Holding unrefrigerated cut tomatoes for 4 hours or less.

FDA also gives general guidance to reduce the spread of germs in the kitchen. FDA advises restaurants to

  • Use separate cutting boards for different types of foods such as meat and produce.
  • Use gloves to handle ready-to-eat food such as tomatoes.

Study Purpose

The purpose of the study was to describe tomato-handling practices in restaurants. The study focused on receiving, storing, washing, cutting, and holding tomatoes.

Study Findings in Brief

EHS-Net found that many restaurants did not follow FDA advice when handling tomatoes. Restaurants

  • Did not separate tomatoes from other foods during preparation.
  • Did not wash tomatoes properly.
  • Held cut tomatoes at temperatures that were too high.

Study Design

Participants

We collected data in 449 restaurants. These restaurants were in the 2006 EHS-Net sites and were picked at random.

Data Collection

State or local environmental health specialists collected the data. In each restaurant, they watched food workers and collected data on how raw fresh tomatoes were handled. They collected data on raw fresh tomatoes in

  • Receiving areas (where tomatoes are first placed when they are delivered).
  • Storage (where tomatoes are placed after receiving until they are used).
  • Holding (where tomatoes are placed while in use [such as the food prep line]).

They also collected data on raw fresh tomatoes being washed and cut.

Study Results

Tomato Receiving and Storage

Average temperature of tomatoes in receiving was 57°F.

Temperatures of tomatoes in storage were higher than 41°F almost half (46%) of the time.

Tomato Washing

Tomatoes were washed in the wrong type of sink (for example, hand sinks) 6% of the time.

Tomatoes were soaked 18% of the time.

Wash water was not at least 10°F warmer than the tomatoes 21% of the time.

Tomato Cutting

Produce or tomato-only cutting boards were not used 49% of the time.

Single-use gloves were not worn 36% of the time.

Tomato temperature was above 41°F after cutting 88% of the time.

Holding of Cut Tomatoes

Most (62%) restaurants held cut tomatoes.

Temperatures of cut tomato batches were above 41°F in holding 52% of the time.

74% of cut tomato batches held above 41°F had a maximum holding time of more than 4 hours.

Study Conclusions

Some restaurants did not meet FDA guidelines for tomato washing. They

  • Used the wrong type of sink.
  • Soaked the tomatoes.
  • Did not use proper water temperatures.

Many restaurants did not meet FDA guidelines to stop the spread of germs. They

  • Did not have separate cutting boards for meat and produce.
  • Did not use gloves when cutting tomatoes.

Many restaurants did not meet FDA guidelines for holding cut tomatoes.

  • About half the cut tomato batches in holding were above 41°F.
  • Holding time for most batches held above 41°F was longer than the 4-hour limit.

Many tomato batches were above 41°F in receiving, storage, and cutting. These all occur before holding. When tomatoes are above 41°F before holding, it is hard to quickly cool them to 41°F.

EHS-Net Recommends

The restaurant industry may need to focus on controlling the temperature of tomatoes before holding. For example, tomatoes could be refrigerated in all stages. Or time control could be used to keep cut tomatoes safe.

Programs could be created to improve tomato handling in restaurants. Such programs could lead to fewer outbreaks linked to tomatoes. During inspections, environmental health specialists could look for poor tomato-handling practices. Then they could help managers and workers fix them.

Key Terms

  • Environmental health specialists: public health workers who enforce health and safety standards related to food and other consumer products.
  • Foodborne illness: an illness caused by germs in food.
  • Foodborne illness outbreak: when two or more people have the same sickness after eating food from the same place.
  • Holding time: amount of time food is kept at a set temperature.
  • Time control: amount of time food should be kept to limit foodborne illness risk.
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