Salmonella Fiasco Could Have Been Prevented with Better Record-Keeping, Enforcement, and Investigatory Tools

It seems that Florida tomato growers are the latest victims in the federal government’s failure to quickly resolve a <"">Salmonella outbreak that sickened approximately 1,300 people nationwide.  Because the government bowed to food industry lobbyists and refused to implement an electronic record-keeping system years ago that could more quickly determine the source of food-borne illnesses, record delays and additional illnesses occurred in what is one of the largest Salmonella outbreaks this nation has seen.

But now, a U.S. House investigative subcommittee hearing on Thursday may be the push that will ultimately change the current, paper-driven system.  Most experts believe that if better record keeping was in place, tomatoes might not have been mistakenly blamed for this most recent Salmonella outbreak.  Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat-Michigan, is the hearing’s chair.  Stupak also chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee’s investigative subcommittee.  “This latest Salmonella outbreak has shown us that it is necessary to have electronic record keeping and trace-back systems,” Stupak told The Associated Press.

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first said tomatoes might have caused the outbreak, many stores stopped selling them, restaurants stopped serving them, and people stopped eating them, all adversely impacting tomato growers.  Two months later, the FDA blamed Mexican jalapeno peppers from a Texas distribution center and said that tomatoes were, in fact, safe to eat after all.  But, tomato growers in Florida and elsewhere across the country have lost millions.  And while this week’s House subcommittee hearing will not undo the damage resulting from the FDA’s actions, it could help prevent such mistakes from occurring in the future.

The AP discovered through government reports and interviews with former federal officials that the Bush administration was pressured by the food industry to limit companies’ record keeping.  Industry lobbyists said maintaining electronic records would be too costly.  Because U.S. health investigators have only been left with paper records to review, the speed and effectiveness of the investigation has been hampered, costing businesses about $250 million in loses since the outbreak first began in April.  “The food industry is learning the hard way that having a strong FDA and common-sense regulation makes good financial sense,” said Representative John Dingell, Democrat-Michigan, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

William Hubbard, former associate commissioner of the FDA, told the AP that if the FDA had been given the resources and authority it requested years ago, “I think we would have solved this already.”  Also, government records indicate that food industry groups met with White House officials no less than 10 times between March 2003 and March 2004 “as food-safety regulations were under debate.”  The FDA’s proposed rules “were significantly watered down before they became final,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.  Tommy Thompson, the-then secretary of Health and Human Services, acknowledged to the AP, “We went in with the larger package but knew we had to compromise.  If we had more, would it help the situation now? Yes.”

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