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Salmonella Probe Hindered by Inadequate Food Safety System

Jul 23, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

An unwieldy food safety system one expert recently termed a "mess" has kept federal officials from finding the source of a Salmonella outbreak that has sickened over 1000 people in the U.S. and Canada.  The poor performance of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and other health agencies in this latest Salmonella outbreak has led to calls for improvements, especially a more efficient and accurate way to trace produce back from the store to the field.

Since April, 1,256 people have been infected with Salmonella Saintpaul.  In June, the FDA blamed certain kinds of tomatoes for the outbreak, and issued a warning to consumers to avoid them.  But long after growers in affected areas stopped shipping tomatoes, and the produce was removed from stores and shelves, people kept getting sick.  What's more, not a single tomato sample  tested by the FDA came up positive for Salmonella Saintpaul.

It wasn't until earlier this week that the FDA finally announced that it had found the Salmonella strain  on a single jalapeno pepper at a Texas warehouse.  Now the agency is telling consumers to stay away from fresh jalapenos.

Critics of the FDA say that it and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were hampered by their own tunnel vision concerning tomatoes.   Health officials at the CDC and in New Mexico - which had the second highest number of illnesses - identified tomatoes as the culprit behind the outbreak in June, and no one ever looked back.  History also played a part, as tomatoes had caused at least a dozen Salmonella outbreaks in the past several years.

Jalapenos, on the other hand, had never been involved in an outbreak.   The hot peppers were not even listed on the questionnaire health officials used to interview patients early in the outbreak.

The FDA also was deterred in its hunt for tainted tomatoes because of poor record-keeping and the common practice of mixing and processing tomatoes from many different farms together.  Even if the FDA had found a contaminated tomato, figuring out what packing plant, processing facility, and farm field it came from would have been difficult, if not impossible.

Both the FDA and some prominent lawmakers want to enact regulations that would enhance the FDA's ability to trace the source of contaminated food.  Traditionally, the agricultural industry has resisted such efforts, fearing liability.  But that may be changing, especially now that tomato growers have suffered millions in losses, in part because of the FDA's inability to trace this Salmonella outbreak.   In fact, the Produce Marketing Association, an industry trade group, is now working on its own plan to set up a global, electronic tracking system for produce.

In the meantime, the FDA has lifted its tomato warning, but says that they could have still played a role in the outbreak.   And while jalapenos seem to be a culprit, the FDA has not ruled out other foods, including cilantro or Serrano peppers, as possible suspects.


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