Salmonella Outbreak Exposes Food-Safety Flaws
Lack of Preparation And Poor Records Cause Delays, Errors
(Wall Street Journal)
By JANE ZHANG and JANET ADAMY
The twisting road that led federal investigators to announce Monday that they found a single contaminated jalapeņo pepper grown in Mexico and sitting at a distribution center in McAllen, Texas -- the smoking gun in the continuing salmonella outbreak long blamed on tomatoes -- has exposed problems in the U.S. food-safety system.
After weeks of trying to get to the bottom of the outbreak, it occurred to investigators in late June that they had to look beyond fresh tomatoes. In at least two large clusters of illnesses, tomatoes weren't a factor, and cases kept piling up after the government had warned consumers to avoid eating fresh tomatoes.
Hurdles to the probe ranged from poor record-keeping for tracking fresh produce to some overwhelmed state health departments to the fact that jalapeņos had never before been implicated in a salmonella outbreak.
"It's a mess -- that's part of the problem with the
food-safety system we have today," said Michael Doyle, director of the
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one
of 12 federal agencies responsible for food safety, relies heavily on state
health departments to test stool samples. But some states don't have the money
or resources to handle that task quickly. Delays in reporting --
In early stages of the investigation, jalapeņo peppers
weren't in the picture. The peppers, never before linked to a salmonella
outbreak, weren't on the questionnaire health officials used to interview early
patients. Officials in
But the Food and Drug Administration's hunt for contaminated tomatoes was hampered by poor record-keeping and the common practice of mixing and processing tomatoes from many different farms together. Also, many tomato fields were no longer in production, and all 1,700 samples tested negative for salmonella.
What the federal government and the food industry learn from the investigation could help improve the system. Already, a system to enhance the FDA's ability to trace the source of contaminated food has gained support among some prominent lawmakers and the FDA.
Agricultural producers have been leery of such systems because they could bring liability to their doorstep, but Kathy Means, a vice president at the Produce Marketing Association, said that is changing since recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses have been so costly for farmers and food companies.
The trade group last year began crafting a plan to set up a global, electronic tracking system. "We need to be able to trace produce in minutes or hours, not days or weeks," Ms. Means said.
Officials at the CDC still haven't ruled out tomatoes as the culprit, though the FDA did lift its warning against eating them, but are also doing some soul-searching. "We are asking ourselves: Could you have caught peppers? Was there a pepper component missed in earlier stages?" said Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC's division of food-borne, bacterial and mycotic diseases. He added later: "We want very much to learn what we can do better."
As of Monday, the CDC had reported that 1,256 people in 43
The outbreak was first identified May 21, when
The next day, with more cases confirmed, state officials
immediately alerted the CDC. Also that day, the CDC told
By May 23,
Both states started asking patients what they ate before they got sick. The state questionnaires had more than 200 food items including peppers but not specifically jalapeņos. The surveys found a strong link with tomato consumption, a disproportionately high 86%, and less than half of the ill people who were surveyed remembered eating salsa, Dr. Tauxe said.
By late June, investigators were focusing on ingredients in
salsa and other dishes that contained fresh tomatoes. Health authorities were
Jalapeņos are hard to pinpoint because they are used in many dishes, and people often don't remember eating them, Dr. Tauxe said. "How do we detect something people don't remember eating."
Last week, the FDA lifted its warning on tomatoes, but still said they could have been to blame for some of the cases. Regulators still held out the possibility that cilantro or serrano peppers might be the cause of some of illnesses, too. 7-23-08
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