Salmonella Investigation Hindered by Performance of FDA, CDC, other Agencies

The poor performance of government regulators who investigated this summer’s massive <"">Salmonella outbreak highlighted serious problems with the way produce is regulated in the U.S., a new report says.    The report, compiled by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Produce Safety Project, faults federal agencies, including the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), for failing to investigate other produce as a possible source of the Salmonella outbreak sooner, and for maintaining a focus on tomatoes as the culprit for far too long.

This past summer’s Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak sickened 1,448 people across the country.  Initially, the outbreak was blamed on certain varieties of raw tomatoes, but even after the tomatoes were taken off the market, illnesses continued. What’s more, the FDA was unable to identify the Salmonella strain responsible for the outbreak on any of the tomato samples it tested.  Still, the FDA continued to maintain that tomatoes were at the center of the outbreak until mid-July.  

With the FDA focusing its efforts on tomatoes, consumers were naturally reluctant to take a chance on the produce.  According to the Produce Safety Project, Florida growers alone lost more than $100 million.  The report says demand for fresh tomatoes still hasn’t recovered.

In July, the FDA finally  warned consumers to stay away from Mexican grown jalapeno peppers.  The announcement came after one Mexican-grown jalapeno tested positive for Salmonella Saintpaul.   The warning was later expanded to include Mexican-grown serrano pepper, as well.  The FDA based that warning on tests it conducted at a Mexican farm which detected Salmonella in a sample of peppers and water used for irrigation.

According to the Produce Safety Project report, the conduct of the Salmonella investigation  raises questions about how timely and effectively data was shared between the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control, and various state agencies.   Problems in this area may have  contributed to a delayed identification of jalapeno and serrano peppers as a vehicle for Salmonella Saintpaul, the report says.

The Salmonella outbreak also shows  that the FDA needs to use its existing statutory authorities to establish mandatory and enforceable safety standards for fresh produce, the report says.  In the past, the FDA has claimed that Congress needs to pass legislation to grant it explicit authority to do so. However, as the Produce Safety Project points out, the FDA has already used existing authorities to put in place preventive safety standards for seafood in 1995 and for juice in 2001.

“Many of these problems have been identified for years by expert body after expert body,” said Jim O’Hara, director of the Produce Safety Project, said in a press release.  “If we pass up this opportunity to learn from this most recent outbreak, we will keep repeating the same costly mistakes -for public health and industry alike.”

O’Hara called on the incoming Obama Administration to make the establishment of mandatory, enforceable safety standards for fresh produce a food safety priority.

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