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Food Emergency Response Network Activated to Investigate Salmonella Outbreak

Jul 3, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Yesterday, the Food Emergency Response Network—FERN—was activated by federal health officials to investigate the possible contamination of multiple “salad bowl” ingredients.  FERN is comprised of a nationwide group of about 100 state and federal laboratories that was convened following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to respond to threats to the nation's food supply.  FERN will study strains of bacteria on tainted produce and collate that information for analysis.  Most of the data studied will come from county health departments, which receive illness reports from doctors; federal investigators will extract leads from the data.

Food borne contamination outbreaks are difficult to police because the food-surveillance system is outdated, under-funded, and overwhelmed by the emergence of mega-farms, -distribution centers, and -transporters.  Produce is packaged and repackaged numerous times before it reaches supermarket shelves, leaving an often long and circuitous path that, in many cases, crosses several state lines.  And although the Food & Drug Administration (FDA)—which has been tracking the ongoing Salmonella St. Paul outbreak since mid-April—has begun testing other produce in an attempt to finally identify the source of the illnesses, it is not saying what other foods it is testing, possibly leaving consumers with no way to avoid contracting Salmonella.  Today’s Salmonella St. Paul outbreak—one of the largest Salmonella outbreaks in history—is considered far worse that the E. coli threat to spinach in 2006 and has sickened 869 people, thus far; four times the size of 2006’s scare. 

Initially, the FDA warned consumers to avoid raw red plum, red Roma, or round red tomatoes or any products containing them unless they are known to have come from a geographic area cleared of any connection to the outbreak.  But even after restaurants and grocery stores removed the suspect tomatoes from their inventories, people continued to get sick from Salmonella.  Of the over 800 confirmed illnesses, 179 occurred in June—after the tomato warning was issued.  The last reported illness occurred on June 20.

Last Friday, David Acheson, associate commissioner with the FDA, said that of 1700 domestic and international tomato samples collected for investigators so far, none has tested positive for Salmonella St. Paul.  But, people are still getting sick, which means that whatever caused the outbreak remains in circulation.  There are a few possible scenarios that could explain the continuing illnesses.  Tomatoes and other produce could have picked up Salmonella at common packing warehouses or storage areas.  Produce and tomatoes could have also been grown in adjacent fields that were contaminated with Salmonella as a result of animal waste runoff.

Despite this, the FDA is sticking by its tomato warning and continues to advise consumers that it is safe to eat grape tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached, and tomatoes grown in areas the agency has deemed safe.  Critics disagree saying tomatoes from various geographic areas generally pass through the warehouses.  This means that if a packing house or storage shed is responsible for the Salmonella contamination, any tomatoes processed there would be at risk, including those the FDA is calling safe.  Even with such a possibility, the FDA's Acheson said the agency's advice to consumers will not change unless the investigation turns up other suspects.


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