Aug 18, 2008
Cleaning up the Salmonella Mess will Take a Long Time

OK, so it wasn’t tomatoes after all. It was peppers. Wasn’t it?

I’m confused. For several weeks, I’ve been following the outbreak of Salmonella saintpaul that has sickened thousands, and I still don’t know what to believe. Sure, FDA announced July 30 it had found a tainted serrano pepper sample and tainted irrigation water at a Mexican farm, but after what the agency just did to the U.S. tomato industry, can we really trust that its investigators are on the right track after taking several missteps? Or are pepper growers going to suffer the same fate as their tomato brethren?

And who gets the blame for the mistakes that were made? There’s plenty of blame being passed around online. Some (well, more than some) blame FDA for mishandling the investigation and prematurely implicating tomatoes, costing that industry millions of dollars for something it didn’t do. Others blame the food industry for lobbying to weaken federal recordkeeping rules, making it more difficult for FDA to conduct its traceback investigation.

Being stuck behind a desk in Michigan, I can’t investigate this stuff firsthand, but here’s what I’ve gleaned about the outbreak from government and media reports: The first case was reported April 10, though no one realized it was part of an outbreak until late May, when authorities in New Mexico informed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there was an outbreak of Salmonella saintpaul in their state. Other states followed suit, including Texas.

By May 31, the New Mexico Department of Health warned the public not to eat certain types of raw red tomatoes. By June 3, FDA was giving a similar warning to people in New Mexico and Texas. By June 7, FDA expanded the warning to the rest of the nation, and the damage was done. People stopped buying tomatoes. Restaurants stopped serving them. Crops rotted in the fields.

FDA started clearing certain states and regions as safe, which got things moving again, but the entire tomato industry didn’t get cleared until July 17, when FDA and CDC started concentrating on raw jalapeno and serrano peppers.

The federal agencies might not have found the pepper trail (or might not have found it as quickly) were it not for the Minnesota Department of Health. According to a July 24 story on (serving Minneapolis-St. Paul), “Minnesota health officials first learned of a salmonella outbreak in the state on June 23. By July 9, they were on the phone with their federal counterparts making it ‘crystal clear’ it was not tomatoes but jalapenos that were the likely source.”

According to the story, Minnesota was mostly untouched by the salmonella outbreak until the middle of June, when “cases started rolling in.” On June 23, the Minnesota Health Department linked two of the cases to the national outbreak – and more emerged. By June 29, investigators traced some of the illnesses to a restaurant in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, a restaurant that had dumped all its suspect tomatoes weeks before. So, tomatoes were off the hook and – after comparing what both the sick and healthy customers ate – a jalapeno garnish was on the hook, according to the story.

On June 30, Minnesota’s agriculture department began a traceback investigation, finding the suspect peppers’ distributors in California and Texas and their farms of origin in Mexico. Shortly after, the Minnesota team shared its information with the federal agencies, according to the story.

On July 21, FDA announced it had found a salmonella-tainted jalapeno pepper sample at a produce distribution center in McAllen, Texas. The Texas plant wasn’t the original source of the contamination, however. According to the agency’s July 25 Web site update, the “current traceback investigation and harvesting dates, matched with the dates that people became ill, have combined to indicate that the contaminated peppers originated in Mexico.”

On July 30, FDA might have found the “smoking gun” everybody was waiting for. The agency confirmed that a sample of serrano pepper and a sample of irrigation water collected by investigators from a farm in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, contained a strain of Salmonella saintpaul with the same genetic fingerprint as the strain of bacteria causing the U.S. outbreak.

At the end of July, FDA investigators were still analyzing many of the samples taken at Mexican farms, and the agency was advising people not to eat raw jalapeno or serrano peppers grown, harvested or packed in Mexico.

Perhaps, by the time you read this, all of our questions will be answered. Perhaps. In the meantime, everybody wants to salvage something from this mess. U.S. tomato growers want compensation from the federal government for the millions of dollars they lost. FDA wants its credibility back. Mexican pepper growers, I imagine, want to wake up from this bad dream.

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