Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Tomato Pasting

The numbers continue to climb in the largest tomato-related Salmonella outbreak in US history. At last count – as of 9pm (EDT) last night – CDC has acknowledged 869 lab-confirmed cases of Salmonella Saintpaul infections in 36 states and the District of Columbia. At least 107 people have been hospitalized.

What's even more significant than the continuing increase in reported cases is the timing of new cases. CDC now tells us that, contrary to its previous reports, 179 of the victims – more than 20% of the lab-confirmed total – began to have symptoms of salmonellosis during the month of June. The newest patients became ill on June 20, two weeks after FDA alerted consumers, retailers and food service operators nation-wide to the outbreak.

On the subject of FDA, there has been no further substantive news on its trace-back investigations. None of the tomato samples tested so far have yielded the outbreak strain. We don't even know whether any Salmonella – outbreak strain or not – has turned up in the more than 1,700 samples FDA has examined.

Having cut my food safety teeth within a federal health agency (Canada's Health Protection Branch), I usually tend to give government investigators the benefit of the doubt. I know how complex and difficult it can be to trace the source of a microbiological contaminant. But I get the sense that FDA is floundering in its trace-back attempts.

I am especially disturbed by the latest statements out of CDC and FDA that cast doubt on their initial positive assertions as to the source of this outbreak. And I find Dr. Acheson's apparent surprise at the complexity of the raw tomato distribution system disingenuous, at best.

This is the thirteenth Salmonella outbreak that has been linked to contaminated tomatoes in the United States since 1990. Surely, FDA should know by now the details of the tomato distribution chain – or should know where to find that information pronto.

When all the dust finally settles on this enigmatic outbreak, I hope – and expect – to see a full Congressional inquiry into the handling of this investigation by FDA and CDC.

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