Saturday, February 9, 2008

Tasmanian Tummy - The New Delhi Belly?

On January 31st, Dr. Roscoe Taylor, the public health director for the Australian state of Tasmania, announced that his agency was in the process of investigating an outbreak of Salmonella gastroenteritis.

The outbreak, which had claimed 27 victims by then, had been tied to catered food served at several functions. By February 2nd, the toll had climbed to 56 victims, some of whom had eaten catered food while attending two separate funerals at a funeral home. At least three of the victims were sick enough to have needed hospitalization.

The number of victims has since grown to at least 75 - and possible 120 - people, and epidemiological studies have revealed a probable culprit - one or more sauces made from raw eggs.

Raw eggs have become a political hot potato in Tasmania's state parliament. Tasmanian Green Party MP, Nick McKim, has been excoriating Primary Industries Minister David Llewellyn over his department's ineffectual efforts at protecting the public's health. McKim has suggested that a conflict of interest exists within the Primary Industries Department, and that the state's public health department should be handed food safety regulatory responsibility for the agricultural sector.

The Tasmanian regulatory situation sounds very similar to the situation in the United States, where the US Department of Agriculture, together with the 50 State Departments of Agriculture, are responsible both for promoting US agricultural products and for regulating meat, poultry and egg processors.

Conflicts of interest are frowned upon in most other situations, including government agencies and advisory boards. Why do we continue to allow this flagrant conflict of interest to taint our food safety system?

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