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Agriculture Commissioner Condemns FDA's Handling of Salmonella Outbreak

Aug 1, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Florida’s agriculture commissioner, Charles Bronson, sharply criticized the way in which the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) handled the recent and widespread Salmonella outbreak that sickened over 1,300 and cost American tomato growers over $300 million.  At a congressional subcommittee meeting, Bronson said the FDA’s decision to limit the information it shared with states made it difficult to assist them.  Bronson also criticized the FDA for not asking states to provide it with information, for instance asking if local farmers were even growing the suspect product and in what harvest stage such product might be, the FDA could have easily narrowed its investigations’ focus.

“One of our greatest frustrations is that Florida was as implicated as Mexico from the very beginning of the investigation, yet a simple review of the number of Salmonella cases per state showed that the vast majority were concentrated in the West,” Bronson told the subcommittee.  Although federal officials released a statement saying that the outbreak was traced to irrigation water and peppers grown on a farm in Mexico, they have refused to completely clear tomatoes as carriers of the bacteria.  Meanwhile, Bronson said losses to Florida farmers, which are still being calculated, are expected to be in the millions, making Florida tomato growers the latest victims in the federal government's failure to quickly resolve the Salmonella outbreak.

Years ago, the government acquiesced to lobbyists and refused to implement an electronic record-keeping system that could have more quickly determined the source of food-borne illnesses avoiding the record delays and additional illnesses now seen in what is one of the largest Salmonella outbreaks in this nation’s history.  Experts believe if better record keeping was in place, tomatoes might not have been mistakenly blamed in this outbreak.  Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat-Michigan, and chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee's investigative subcommittee said in an interview with The Associated Press:  "This latest Salmonella outbreak has shown us that it is necessary to have electronic record keeping and trace-back systems."

When the FDA first blamed tomatoes for the outbreak, many stores stopped selling them, restaurants stopped serving them, and people stopped eating them, all adversely impacting tomato growers.  Two months later, the FDA blamed Mexican jalapeno peppers from a Texas distribution center and said tomatoes were safe to eat after-all.  But, tomato growers in Florida and elsewhere across the country have lost millions.  And while this week’s House subcommittee hearing will not undo the damage resulting from the FDA's actions, it could help prevent such mistakes from occurring in the future.

The AP discovered through government reports and interviews with former federal officials that the Bush administration was pressured by the food industry to limit companies' record keeping.  Industry lobbyists said maintaining electronic records would be too costly.  Because U.S. health investigators were left with paper records to review, the investigations’ speed and effectiveness were hampered, costing businesses millions in.  "The food industry is learning the hard way that having a strong FDA and common-sense regulation makes good financial sense," said Representative John Dingell, Democrat-Michigan, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.


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