Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Tomatoes: Troublesome Tracebacks

I have just finished reading a very informative interview of Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, published in Jim Prevor's Perishable Pundit. While I strongly encourage everyone to read the entire interview, I have quoted a few brief excerpts here.
"The whole system is flawed. The relationship between FDA and CDC is strained; it’s improved but still lacking. It’s not clear who is really in charge."

"We need someone that understands outbreaks, not just manages them. In this case, it appears that instead of experienced professionals, Outbreak Investigation Class 101 was doing the control study."

"FDA never talked about tracing back product from the control group. It was a near fatal flaw from the get-go, and if they don’t change their approach they will never find the source."

"We need a serious examination of how this outbreak was handled from the first instance of illness. By the time tomatoes were identified, it was the end of May and the vast majority of product was through the food system already."

"I owe it to the public health of this country to come forward with my knowledge and put on the record the dysfunction occurring at the federal level. A subsequent review by experts in food borne disease investigations would say this tomato outbreak investigation has bordered on incompetence."

"There should be a call for a formal investigation on what happened and why."
Prevor's article also quotes a spokesperson from the New Mexico Department of Health, who said, in part:
"With Lowe’s and Bashas, it was Mexico. With those two stores, we were able to go down the supply chain to determine the distributor. At that point it was really pointing to Mexico and we passed that information on to the FDA and CDC, but we really don’t have the ability to go into Mexico."
CDC updated its totals again last night (although it date-stamped the update 9:00am, June 24 2008). Nevada has been added to the list of states affected by the outbreak; 34 states and the District of Columbia have now reported a total of 652 lab-confirmed cases, according to CDC. Seventy-one people have been hospitalized.

If Dr. Osterholm's take on the situation is correct – and I have a great deal of respect for his opinion – the FDA and CDC have been largely ineffectual in their response to this outbreak. I applaud his courage in speaking out so strongly, and I join his call for a thorough – and professional – examination of how our federal health agencies have handled this outbreak investigation.

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