Slow Salmonella Probe Testing Patience

Anger is being directed at federal regulators who have yet to determine the source of a massive <"">Salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 800 people across the country. It has been 11 weeks since the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers Disease Control (CDC) began tracking an outbreak of a rare strain of Salmonella – St. Paul.  The agencies had originally implicated certain varieties of raw tomatoes in the outbreak, but late last week conceded that they are not certain if the Salmonella was tied to the produce at all.

The FDA’s initial warning last month that consumers should stay away from raw  red plum, red Roma, or round red tomatoes or any products containing them unless they are known to have come from a geographic area cleared of any connection to the outbreak left restaurants and grocery stores scurrying to remove the produce from their inventories.  It also meant slumping tomato sales, and left many grocers with little choice but to watch their crop rot in warehouses.

So it came as shock to many on Friday when David Acheson, associate commissioner with the FDA, said that of 1700 domestic and international tomato samples collected for investigators so far, none has tested positive for Salmonella St. Paul.

Acheson said that while the tomatoes themselves might not be tainted, they could be picking up the outbreak strain of Salmonella at a packing warehouse, or somewhere else along the supply chain.  Unfortunately, Acheson said that tomatoes from geographic areas the FDA considers “safe” might still be at risk, as they may pass through the warehouse or packing plant responsible for the outbreak.

Even worse, the CDC says that ultimately, tomatoes might have no connection to the outbreak at all.  For one thing, many of those sickened ate tomatoes that were a part of other foods, such as guacamole, pasta salads and salsas.  On Friday, Dr. Patricia Griffin from the CDC told the Associated Press that her agency is re-checking their investigation, in case some other type of produce is responsible for the outbreak.  “We continue to keep an open mind about the possible source of this outbreak,” Griffin said.

The uncertainty over the origins of this Salmonella outbreak has some tomato growers – who have lost millions in sales – fuming.  According to The Wall Street Journal, over the weekend, Western Growers, a trade group representing most of the fresh-produce industry in California and Arizona, called for the House Agriculture Committee to investigate the regulators.

Unfortunately, the way tomatoes are shipped and processed has only slowed down the investigation.  According to The Wall Street Journal, once  tomatoes from multiple growers come into a processing facility, they’re usually sorted based on ripeness, size and grade, not origin. Once tomatoes are sliced, diced and mixed for salad bars, deli counters or supermarket salsas, tracking their origin becomes nearly impossible.

Several consumer groups have long called for an overhaul of the food surveillance system, and last November the Bush administration announced that it would allow the FDA to request more authority from Congress, including the power to better trace the source of contaminations. But the agency has made little progress in that area so far.

The current Salmonella outbreak has now sickened 851 people in 36 states and the District of Columbia.  At least 105 people have been hospitalized, and Salmonella may have been a contributing factor in the death of a Texas cancer patient.

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