Effect Measure

Spoiling the tomato barrel

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.


  1. #1 Lea
    July 20, 2008

    Heard a blurb on NPR news last Thursday aftermppm that the investigation has gone to Mexico where the suspect jalapeno’s and another pepper name I can’t recall might get the blame.

  2. #2 Lea
    July 20, 2008

    Typo Alert! aftermppm should read afternoon.

  3. #3 revere
    July 20, 2008

    Lea: From what I’ve heard, the Salmonella found on Mexican peppers is not the same strain. But info is kind of scarce.

  4. #4 Douglas
    July 20, 2008

    We have the technology: RFID’s etc. We just don’t have the leadership to refine and strengthen our food laws; this and USDA beef “inspections” are glaring examples.

  5. #5 Matt Hussein Platte
    July 20, 2008

    And let’s not forget that the current “market-friendly” Administration actively suppresses a market-based, market-originated more vigorous meat inspection program in favor of… the status quo.

    /sorry, just one of many pet peeves. 😛

  6. #6 Ron
    July 20, 2008

    The problem is the complicated distribution system controlled by ever fewer corporations. RFID and other high.tech attempts will only complicate things further, introducing costs that only large corporations can shoulder, passing them own eventually to the consumer, especially after the small growers and distributors have all been driven out. The only solution is move to increasingly locally based, small systems where things are under control through direct consumer/producer cooperation . This works for urban communities as well as small rural communities. It just has to be organized that way, instead of multi-billion farm bills that subsidize big, centralized distributors.

  7. #7 revere
    July 20, 2008

    Ron: We could require tracking for farms over a certain size. While local production is a good idea, it doesn’t work if you want to eat fruit in the winter in the north or whatever. Maybe you think that’s not something we need, but it’s something people want and will pay for so. That means we need to have some kind of tracking system if we don’t want to repeat episodes like this or much worse.

  8. #8 Janne
    July 20, 2008

    Europe manages to track food and foodstuffs throughout the processing chain, and do so despite a much more fragmented distribution and wholesale system, and despite language and business-cultural differences. Perhaps looking into how they do it would be a start?

  9. #9 Jared
    July 20, 2008

    Ahh, yes, this is a prime example of our wonderful FDA completely missing the chance to prove that our government is at least partially competent in something…

  10. #10 Jody Lanard M.D.
    July 21, 2008

    The AP / Ipsos poll numbers suggest that public fear is now at a more realistic and appropriate level than before the current salmonella outbreak (although I don’t have pre-outbreak comparison data to cite).

    As you quote above:

    “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 U.S. CDC agrees that there is reason to worry:

    “CDC estimates that 76 million Americans get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 people die from foodborne illnesses each year.” http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/food/

  11. #11 tendrel
    July 21, 2008

    I just refer people to the book Spoiled. It may be a decade old, but still a good one.
    Spoiled on Amazon

  12. #12 Gindy
    July 21, 2008

    Jared, that’s the whole idea. Shrink government until you can drown in the bathtub, al a Grover Norquist. If you make sure government doesn’t function when you need it, less people will trust it and want to get rid of it.
    This latest round of food poisoning is just another example of starving a regulatory industry into the dirt.

  13. #13 Lea
    July 21, 2008

    That’s interesting Gindy.
    Like it very much in that I’d love to see government nearly go by the wayside, at least be scaled down immensely. People really are capable of governing themselves, in degree that is.

  14. #14 Jared
    July 21, 2008

    Gindy, I’d point to how incompetent it is as a means of how ineffective our government runs things. Perhaps bureaucracy isn’t such a good thing after all? I’d say we need better equipment, training, and facilities, but not necessarily more employees, just non-politically affiliated ones.

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