The US FDA is lifting the warning on eating tomatoes it issued on June 7 because of the country’s largest produce-associated foodborne Salmonella outbreak. The source of the Salmonella infections, all said to be “genetically identical” isolates of an uncommon serovar is still to be discovered, although epidemiological evidence associated it with salsa containing fresh tomatoes. Later the possibility that other salsa ingredients such as jalapeno peppers or cilantro might be the culprit has been raised. So far no one seems to know how that thousand plus cases became infected with the Salmonella, although the evidence still suggests a single common source that was widely distributed in the food chain. Meanwhile the tomato industry has suffered serious economic losses and consumers are still wary. If Mrs. R. is any gauge, many people have changed their grocery buying habits — even though she never believed tomatoes were the cause of the outbreak (the fact that she is married to an epidemiologist may have colored her opinion a bit). “It just made them unappetizing,” she told me. We have a tomato plant that is producing lots of tomatoes, so we haven’t had to depend on the store. Poll results, in fact, show she is typical, and it’s not just tomatoes:
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll finds that nearly half of U.S. consumers have changed their eating and buying habits in the past six months because they’re afraid they could get sick by eating contaminated food. They also overwhelmingly support setting up a better system to trace produce in an outbreak back to the source, the poll found.
While the poll found that three in four people remain confident about the overall safety of food, 46 per cent said they were worried they might get sick from eating contaminated products. The same percentage said that because of safety warnings, they have avoided items they normally would have purchased.
Eighty-six per cent in the poll said produce should be labelled so it can be tracked through layers of processors, packers and shippers, all the way back to the farm. The lack of such a system frustrated disease detectives working on the salmonella outbreak. However, the industry is divided over mandatory tracing technology, and Congress is running out of time to act on any major food safety changes before the election.
The poll found that 80 per cent of Americans said they would support new federal standards for fresh produce. Meat and poultry have long been subject to enforceable federal safeguards, but fruits and vegetables are not, although produce increasingly is being implicated in outbreaks. (CBC News)
Growers are blaming an inept federal bureaucracy for mistakenly blaming tomatoes and I am sure there will be plenty of finger pointing and recriminations to come. But we still don’t know enough to let tomatoes off the hook as the source. Whether our failure to solve this puzzle in a timely way is a result of a botched investigation or a food distribution system that has become too complicated to allow us to figure things like this out — or both — will be the subject of intense interest, I am sure. But the public wants us to be able to track the source of produce through the complicated network of growing, packing, shipping, distributing, whether the farmers, brokers and distributers agree or not. The failure of the produce industry to work constructively in the past (and through until today) is part of the problem and the crisis in confidence in produce is a self-inflicted wound.
We’ve said it before. The food safety system is broken and it is being overseen by broken federal agencies. Both have to be fixed. We know the Bush administration and the Republican Party of the last 25 years isn’t going to fix it. The next administration, whether Obama or McCain, will almost certainly do better. We can hardly do worse than the Bush crowd. We’ll also have to elect more and better Democrats. Too many farm state Democrats are in the pockets of agribusiness and most Republicans don’t want to regulate anything unless it can boost corporate profits.
So this year’s growing season is going to be an economic bust. Maybe when the next 184 days are up, we can go about insuring the next one won’t be plagued by plagues.