AP | Tomato plants have been removed from stores in half a dozen states as a destructive and infectious plant disease makes its earliest and most widespread appearance ever in the eastern United States.
Late blight — the same disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s — occurs sporadically in the Northeast, but this year's outbreak is more severe for two reasons: infected plants have been widely distributed by big-box retail stores and rainy weather has hastened the spores' airborne spread.
The disease, which is not harmful to humans, is extremely contagious and experts say it most likely spread on garden center shelves to plants not involved in the initial infection. It also can spread once plants reach their final destination, putting tomato and potato plants in both home gardens and commercial fields at risk.
Meg McGrath, professor of plant pathology at Cornell University, calls late blight "worse than the Bubonic Plague for plants."
"People need to realize this is probably one of the worst diseases we have in the vegetable world," she said. "It's certain death for a tomato plant."
Tomato plants have been removed from Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Lowe's and Kmart stores in all six New England states, plus New York. Late blight also has been identified in all other East Coast states except Georgia, as well as Alabama, West Virginia and Ohio, McGrath said.
It is too early in the season to know whether infected plants will taint large crops or negatively affect commercial growers. But if that happens, growers could be forced to raise prices to cover costs associated with combating the disease.