F.D.A. tracks tomatoes, faces more scrutiny

by Stephanie XBloyd
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The Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) took a step closer to pinpointing the source for the tomato-related Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak June 16, as an F.D.A. spokesman said a cluster of nine related cases could be the key to unlocking the mystery.

A cluster of Salmonella cases with the same genetic fingerprint occurred in a single, unnamed geographic location, said Dr. David Acheson, director of food safety for the F.D.A., in a press conference. One restaurant chain also was being examined in the investigation after the F.D.A. learned that the nine individuals reportedly ate in two restaurants within the same chain.

Nine cases were reported by the Chicago Department of Health but Mr. Acheson declined to say if the situations were related. Two Adobo Grill locations in Chicago were linked to the outbreak June 19.

Regions of Florida and Mexico were being investigated as sources for the outbreak, though northern Florida, as well as Baja California in Mexico were cleared in the outbreak. The state of California also was included on the F.D.A.’s safe list. As of June 17, the F.D.A. cleared 39 states, plus the District of Columbia and seven foreign countries from involvement in the outbreak. The F.D.A. said 383 people nationwide have been sickened by tainted tomatoes since April. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) said the

Salmonella outbreaks were linked to consumption of raw red plum, red Roma or round red tomatoes as well as products containing these raw tomatoes.

The outbreak not only has cost the produce industry depleted consumer confidence, but some estimated the recalls may cost the $2.2 billion tomato industry millions of dollars in losses.

A recent consumer survey released by Deloitte Consulting, L.L.P. found that 57% of Americans have stopped eating certain foods as a result of product recalls, and 76% said they were more concerned about the foods they eat now than they were five years ago.

"Since 2004-05, the F.D.A. has been gently prodding the lettuce and tomato industries to do a better job on safety, and many have risen to the challenge," said Bill Marler of Marler Clark Attorneys at Law, whose firm specializes in foodborne illness cases. "The problem is that one mistake gets made by someone not following the rules (and) then it’s a problem for everybody. The industry could lose millions and millions of dollars for someone else’s error."

The Produce Marketing Association (P.M.A.) was working on an estimate of industry losses at press time, though Florida tomato growers estimated the damage may be as much as $500 million.

Learning from the past

The lessons learned by the 2006 E. coli fresh spinach outbreak helped prepare the fresh produce industry for the current outbreak, said Julia Stewart, public relations director for the P.M.A. She said the association was helping the F.D.A. clear growing regions in the tomato outbreak.

"One of the things that’s different this time from the spinach outbreak is that there’s more communication between the F.D.A., C.D.C. and the involved industry," Ms. Stewart said. "For example, it’s day 15 of the situation today (June 16). We spent the first 10 to 12 days getting the F.D.A. as much information as the industry could as to what areas were in production at the time to help with the traceback process.

That’s why they were able to exclude as many regions as they were so quickly. Once we were able to document certain areas that weren’t in production and shipping at the time, they were ruled out."

She went on to explain that the tomato industry has enhanced its focus on food safety in recent years.

"The North American Tomato Trade Work Group is in the process of publishing its second edition of the ‘Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Fresh Tomato Supply Chain’ — it’s at the printer now," Ms. Stewart said. "The industry takes food safety very seriously, and it’s very upset because they’ve been working so hard on it."

Media reports about tainted tomatoes caused many restaurants and retailers to pull all varieties of the fruit, Ms. Stewart noted. Burger King and McDonald’s, as well as several other fast-food chains, are in the process of adding tomatoes back onto menus.

"Everyone’s getting better with communications, though despite our best efforts, some media outlets lumped all the tomatoes together, even though it was the round reds and plums in question," Ms. Stewart said. "A number of retailers pulled all tomatoes off shelves. We want to get safe tomatoes back on menus right away. The timing couldn’t be more unfortunate, but that’s the nature of a crisis."

Food safety officials under fire

Government agencies have been widely criticized for what was perceived as a slow response in identifying the source of the outbreak. The crisis has reignited the debate about the F.D.A.’s Food Protection Plan, released in November 2007.

In a June 12 House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on food safety, scientists and industry representatives advocated adopting the Food Protection Plan’s recommendations.

"The current outbreak of Salmonella associated with tomatoes is a perfect demonstration of our need for a modernized food safety system," testified Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health. "A truly successful food safety system is one that we don’t need to read about in the newspapers because it is working so well.

"But as we have seen over the last week, instead we have a system that places the lives of Americans at risk, undermines the overall public confidence in our food supply and threatens the economic stability of our farmers. A major investment is necessary to prepare the F.D.A.’s food safety function for the 21st century marketplace. We believe the F.D.A.’s Food Protection Plan is a good start."

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

"We are very pleased that the administration has asked for an additional $125 million for the F.D.A.’s food safety work," Mr. Levi said in his subcommittee testimony. "But increased funding must be sustained over time to allow for effective strategic planning. We must convert our food safety policies from a reactive to a preventive system. We are wasting millions of dollars on responding to such threats rather than building proper controls into the production system."

A report released June 12 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (G.A.O.) criticized the F.D.A. plan and called for more concrete details to implement it. The G.A.O. report noted that if the F.D.A. were to inspect each of the approximately 65,500 domestic food companies it regulates, the total cost would be about $524 million. The report also stated that between 2001-07, the number of domestic companies under F.D.A. jurisdiction increased to more than 65,500 from 51,000, while the number of companies inspected declined to 14,566 from 14,721.

"Conducting safety inspections based on risk has the potential to be an efficient and effective approach for the F.D.A. to target scarce resources based on relative vulnerability," the G.A.O. report said. "In addition, timelines for implementing the various strategies in the plan are unclear, though a senior level F.D.A. official estimated that the overall plan will take five years to complete."

The P.M.A. also released a statement calling for increased F.D.A. spending.

"The devastating effect that the ongoing traceback investigation of fresh tomatoes is having on consumer confidence, the tomato industry and the people who rely on it for their livelihoods is all the illustration we need that F.D.A. needs more funding to speed its important work," said Bryan Silbermann, president of the P.M.A.

An ounce of prevention

Enhanced product traceability has been under discussion as a preventative option for avoiding foodborne illness at the P.M.A.’s Product Traceability Initiative meetings.

Adapting recall procedures from other business models could guide the fresh produce industry, Mr. Marler said.

"I’m still sort of shocked that I can go on-line and track a book I purchase from Amazon.com, but we can’t track tomatoes," he said. "An outbreak is usually almost over before the C.D.C. and F.D.A. figure out there’s an outbreak."

A new bacterial treatment in development by researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service also may prove helpful in eliminating foodborne pathogens. Microbiologist Ching-Hsing Liao developed a method that uses beneficial bacteria to kill harmful ones.

In his experiments, Mr. Liao dipped bell peppers in solutions of water and beneficial bacteria, then examined the solutions’ effect on both Salmonella and E. coli. A solution containing Pseudomonas fluorescens 2-79 bacteria halted the multiplication of harmful bacteria almost entirely. The dip also reduced soft rot development, Mr. Liao said. He and his team plan to validate the research on a larger scale in hopes of improving the process.

Altering consumer opinion also may play a part in averting a total crisis for the tomato industry. The Deloitte survey, for instance, found that 89% of those surveyed would like food stores to sell more locally produced fruits and vegetables.

"There’s a considerable supply of safe and healthy tomatoes out there," Ms. Stewart said. "Now that retailers are getting good information, we’re seeing the trend of pulling tomatoes off the shelves reversed."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, June 24, 2008, starting on Page 75. Click here to search that archive.

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