and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
July #2

Braving the tomato scare
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Friday, July 11, 2008

I'd write about the record state budget, but the Legislature didn't pass it the night before a holiday weekend so the likes of you would get quick information on its contents. Like most of our elected representatives who voted for it, we'll learn what's in it over the next few weeks, as Statehouse reporters dig for details to share with us.

There's nothing we can do anyhow about the new taxes, pork spending and better benefits for government employees. As long as legislators have the money, they will spend it and then spend more, borrowing and burying their heads in the sand about unfunded infrastructure and public employee pension/health insurance liabilities. Only two things will change the "business-as-usual" budget process: some anti-reform legislators losing their jobs and voters passing the income tax repeal to get the attention of the rest of them, come November.

We must take a moment, however, to thank those business owners who worked so hard last week adjusting their prices for the last-minute increase in the tobacco tax that took effect immediately, even before the governor signed it into law! Seconds for a tax hike, eons for reform.

But instead of spending my time talking to the state government wall, I'm just going to enjoy my summer. I consider myself lucky to be alive, after eating tomatoes as usual all week.

Tomato on the cookout hamburger, tomato in my salsa and one luscious tomato with mayo wrapped in a tortilla. The latter was safe, having been grown locally; at the Marblehead farmers market, another customer said she deals with food warnings by putting her fingers in her ears and saying "lalalalala" whenever the news comes on.

Seriously, we are all lucky to be alive, considering all that could go wrong with the food supply from farm to plate.

My first near-death memory comes from the great cranberry scare when I was a teenager. A few days before Thanksgiving 1959, the secretary of Health, Education and Welfare announced that domestic cranberry products were "contaminated" with a weed killer used by growers. Cranberry sauce disappeared from the table until we learned that you'd have to eat 15,000 pounds of cranberries every day for several years before they could maybe cause cancer in anyone but the family's pet rat.

Until then, cranberry sauce was one of the basic food groups at my home, so my family was glad that cranberry growers didn't go out of business while they fought the government-caused panic. A similar trauma happened to apple growers during the great Alar scare in 1989, which lasted until someone showed it would take 5,000 gallons of apple juice a day to cause cancer.

Nothing wrong with washing your apples and tomatoes before eating them. But this too can be overdone.

When I lived in Greece, the Navy wives who shopped at the weekly farmers market were told by the base command to soak fruits and vegetables in Clorox before serving them. This worked OK with tomatoes and carrots, but try rinsing bleach out of lettuce and broccoli. Still, I persisted, until my Greek landlady dropped by and caught me; I can still see her doubled over, laughing until the tears rolled down her cheeks.

She laughed at me again when we went to the market in the fall; Americans bought the shiniest red apples, but I noticed that the Greek homemakers bought the dusty ones. When I asked Georgia why, she told me that the farmers, to please the Americans, washed the apples in the ditches by the side of the dusty road as they came into town.

I remember laughing myself when my 6-year-old son and I were eating our favorite fast food, tiny lamb chunks on a wooden stick, at the Athens marketplace; we were asked by two American tourists if it was safe to eat these. No, I smiled, we are both attempting suicide.

It's true, I suppose, that one can slowly build up resistance to "foreign" foods. Many newly arrived Americans were confined to lavatories on Greek Easter Monday after eating lamb roasted on a spit in their neighbors' yard, because it was basted all day with olive oil, to which they had not yet become accustomed. I cheerfully started getting accustomed as soon as I landed in Athens.

I also laughed at American friends on a tour to Paris who were brushing their teeth with Coca-Cola rather than use the water (and then getting ice cubes in their Cokes and lemonades). Never had problems with the water in Mexico either, despite the warnings about Montezuma. However, I knew better than to eat the green chiles, which Mexican kids popped into their mouths as we do M&Ms.

I'm also sensible about obvious risks. A friend of mine had to go to an Italian hospital after eating cream puffs from a bakery window something I wouldn't do anywhere. And I keep an eye on the expiration dates on groceries, mine and Chip's, since he couldn't care less. He didn't even ask where his hamburger's tomato came from before he put it on the bun!

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Lowell Sun, Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.