Congressional hearings this week looked into the nation's largest salmonella outbreak in a decade, spanning over two months of investigation. While the outbreak source is still undetermined, the Saintpaul strain of salmonella which has sickened 1,304 people has been narrowed to serrano and jalapeno peppers from two Mexican farms. The peppers originating from Mexico were distributed to 43 states and Canada.
FDA Assistant Commissioner David Acheson said that the initial reported illnesses were “statistically linked to consumption of raw tomatoes.” The FDA warned consumers nationwide June 7 to avoid raw red plum, red Roma, and round red tomatoes because of the possible contamination. The FDA issued a later consumer warning to avoid all fresh jalapenos.
Farmers criticized the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over their miscommunication and response on the situation. “From the very beginning, it was clear to us that FDA was not sharing important information with state regulators,” Florida Agricultural Commissioner Charles Bronson testified.
Many industry representatives complained their loss had reached $300 million and resulted in discarding tons of healthy tomatoes due to the earlier government warnings. One agency likely narrowed the focus in on tomatoes too early, the committee concluded, while a second failed to tap industry and states' expertise in tracing the source of the contamination.
A House committee chairman said Thursday that the salmonella outbreak probe was so bungled that federal investigators reminded him of Keystone Kops. The chairman, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., commented that the salmonella outbreak case reminded him of "a Keystone Kops situation." An investigation that should have taken hours or days instead has stretched on for weeks and months, he said.
Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA, which share responsibility for handling foodborne illness outbreaks, found themselves testifying on the defensive at the hearing.
Many lawmakers identified the problem as due to the fact that no single agency is in charge. The FDA is responsible for tracing the source outbreak, while the CDC is responsible for identifying the type of contaminated food and pathogen.
A more effective tracing system might have allowed the FDA to clear tomatoes more quickly. While many of the larger distributor companies have electronic record systems which can trace their suppliers within hours, smaller shippers and growers often rely on paper records.
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