How Restaurants Handle Tomatoes

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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.

Photo of whole tomatoes.

Why This Study Was Done

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.

What the Study Described

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

What the Study Found

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.

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.

Key Terms
  • 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.
What Is EHS-Net?

This study was conducted by the Environmental Health Specialists Network (EHS-Net). EHS-Net is a federally funded collaboration of federal, state, and local environmental health specialists and epidemiologists working to better understand the environmental causes of foodborne illness.

Want More Information?

Tomato Handling Practices in Restaurants pdf icon[PDF – 109 KB] (scientific article this plain language summary is based on)

How Restaurants Handle Tomatoes pdf icon[PDF – 286 KB] (fact sheet version of this page)

Tomato-Handling Practices Study (study information)

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More Food Safety Study Findings in Plain Language