Search for Salmonella outbreak source expands

by Stephanie Bloyd
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WASHINGTON — In a July 1 press conference, officials at the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) said they were expanding the investigation into Salmonella-tainted tomatoes. The scope of the inquiry was broadened to include produce items commonly served in combination with fresh tomatoes, though specific items were not named.

"Tomatoes are still the lead suspect, and a major focus; they are still being investigated," said Dr. David Acheson, director of food safety for the F.D.A. "The tomato trail is still hot. It’s a question of whether other items are getting hotter."

Mr. Acheson said naming the new products under investigation would be "irresponsible," until more evidence may be gathered. He also iterated the message to consumers that cherry and grape tomatoes, as well as those with the vine still attached, are safe to eat.

Since mid-April, 869 cases of Salmonella have been reported from 36 states, and at least 179 of those cases were reported since June 1. About 107 hospitalizations have been reported with the outbreak. Regions of Florida and Mexico are still being studied as possible sources for the outbreak.

Mr. Acheson said the F.D.A. is working closely with the industry, other federal agencies, as well as state and local authorities, to examine the entire production chain from farm to consumer. Possible contamination points under investigation include farms where multiple products are grown, adjoining farms that may use a common contaminated water source, as well as packing and shipping sites. The practice of repacking tomatoes at off-site locations was cited as one possible cause of contamination.

The F.D.A. also said it was activating the Food Emergency Response Network (F.E.R.N.) of laboratories, established after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to aid in the expanded investigation.

Investigation proves costly

The outbreak has cost the food industry an estimated $100 million thus far, per a Wall Street Journal interview with the National Restaurant Association. Such financial losses have prompted industry groups to call for greater scrutiny of the F.D.A. investigation.

The Western Growers Association sent a statement on June 28 to the House Committee on Agriculture to hold hearings on the F.D.A.’s slow response time.

"The collateral damage inflicted on thousands of innocent producers in this country by F.D.A. blanket ‘advisories,’ such as with spinach and tomatoes, cannot go unchallenged," said Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of the W.G.A. "Our industry has taken dramatic steps to develop the strongest practices possible to prevent contamination in the field and throughout the supply chain. Now it is time to look at how F.D.A. ‘intervenes’ in the event of an outbreak and how they ‘communicate’ with the public and industry to ensure that public health is protected without the irreparable destruction of agricultural economies."

At the July 1 F.D.A. press conference, Mr. Acheson expressed a need for corporate responsibility in the outbreak, citing antiquated record keeping as a factor slowing the investigation.

"The pace of the investigation has been frustratingly slow," he said. "In the digital age, should we still be using paper and pencils to try to figure these things out? And I think it underscores the critical need for industry to modernize the practices and establish electronic record keeping that’s going to enhance data retrieval systems, and frankly improve traceability."

The United Fresh Produce Association (United Fresh) said it recently organized a Produce Traceability Initiative, comprised of 40 to 50 members from throughout the industry supply chain, to address such issues.

"We’ve been working for the past six months to develop traceability standards," said Amy Philpott, vice-president of communications for United Fresh. "The produce industry does have traceability in place now. By law, each producer must be able to trace one step back and one step forward along the supply chain. But they may not all speak the same ‘language,’ if you will. We’re working to standardize that language to expand traceability in outbreaks like this. Part of the initiative is a recommendation for electronic barcoding on produce cases, so the barcodes can be scanned and kept electronically."

In addition to United Fresh, several other industry organizations are collaborating on the initiative, including the Produce Marketing Association (P.M.A.) and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association. The initiative’s steering committee is chaired by Cathy Green, chief operating officer of Food Lion, L.L.C.

United Fresh and the P.M.A. also sent a letter on June 17 calling for enhanced collaboration between the industry and government to Secretary Michael Leavitt of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.). As of July 3, the organizations had not received a response from Mr. Leavitt, but had heard from the C.D.C.

"We’ll be sending a follow-up letter, possibly today, asking for a response from Secretary Leavitt," Ms. Philpott said. "Though the C.D.C. said it would be happy to engage in a dialogue with us. Now that seems more critical than ever."

Government accountability

Mr. Acheson noted a need for better governmental cooperation at the recent press conference, saying the F.D.A. is exploring the possibility of creating an interagency task force for food safety. He also issued a request to Congress asking legislators to revisit the agency’s Food Protection Plan.

"We clearly need to be asking ourselves what do we need to be doing to reduce the likelihood of a repeat of this in the future?" he said. "We said many times that one of the best things to do is to build in preventative control against foodborne illness, and the Food Protection Plan called for that authority last November. We need to focus our efforts on prevention, and our ability to require preventative control is dependent on us gaining that authority."

The F.D.A. Food Protection Plan focuses on the agency’s ability to prevent foodborne illness recalls before they start, recommending preventative approaches, in addition to rapid response protocols when an outbreak occurs.

Mr. Acheson said that as it became available, more information on the investigation would be made public.

"I think it’s very important to recognize that things can and do change rapidly in an outbreak situation," he said. "And as we evolve with this expansion of the investigation, there will be new science coming on-line, and the F.D.A. and C.D.C. obviously will follow the science, and update consumer messages as needed."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, July 8, 2008, starting on Page 20. Click here to search that archive.

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