Monday, July 21, 2008

Salmonella Outbreak Ending

Image credit: screenshot from Attack Of the Killer Tomatoes from

Lately, we've been noticing just how inadequate our food inspection systems are. The latest salmonella tomato infections are a case in point. Three months after the outbreak, we still don't know what caused it:

All we know at this point is tomatoes on the market are safe because there is no way they could be coming from farms that were shipping tomatoes back in April when people first started getting sick.

Tomato Salad for Everyone

In fact, the Food and Drug Administration wonders if jalapeno peppers may also have been a source of infection:

The FDA is now fingering raw jalapeno and serrano peppers as possible - though not certain - suspects. The agency didn't exactly give tomatoes a clean bill of health, but did say they are now determined to be safe.

"I don't think we have all answers yet," said Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota who has led some of the nation's largest investigations of food-borne illnesses.

The fallout from the tomato fiasco, which began in April, is the latest in a line of food-safety scares whose damage has been magnified by the difficulty in pinpointing the source of contamination.

Tomato growers accuse the FDA of failing to do control studies interviewing people who ate tomatoes but did not get sick. Those are now under way.

Salmonella scare hit state growers hard

I first became interested in this thing because I couldn't get tomatoes on my omelette one day. If that were the only sort of problem that resulted from this outbreak, then it would have been a laughing matter. Unfortunately, hundreds of people got sick, and the food industry are worried:

The tomato scare may be over, but it has taken a toll — it's cost the industry an estimated $100 million and left millions of people with a new wariness about the safety of everyday foods.

An Associated Press-Ipsos poll finds that nearly half of 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.

The people who feel that way include the growers.

Poll: Tomato Scare Over, But Fears Remain

Actually, a look at the Gallup organization's own summary presents a somewhat different picture:

While some have expressed frustration in the U.S. government's inability to pinpoint the source of the salmonella, Americans place no less confidence in the government to ensure the safety of the nation's food supply than they did a year ago. Still, confidence remains at a Gallup low and shows no improvement since the FDA added a new "food safety czar" in May 2007.

Despite Salmonella Cases, Americans Confident in Food Safety

The numbers they quote seem to back up that assessment. More than half of consumers changed their buying habits due to news of the infection. This is a sensible thing to do, at least in the short term. While there's been a fairly steady fall in consumer confidence since the beginning of the Bush Administration, there hasn't been a precipitous change. Consumers are not in an outright panic yet, which is what the Fox News quote implied. How many more of these we can go through before that changes is another question. Annys Shin notes:

About all we do know right now is that people are still getting sick, though the number of new cases reported each day is starting to taper off, the CDC said. As of Friday, the case count stood at 1237, with Montana reporting its first case.

Tomato Salad for Everyone

I don't know enough about the current inspection system to say that it's another thing the Bush Administration have broken. But it seems certain that this system needs to be improved. My food buying habits haven't changed yet, but if these nationwide outbreaks continue without the FDA being able to find their source, that will probably change. While the fact that our food is shipped to us from all over the world complicates the search immensely, the technology we have to work with is also improved. We can now identify contaminants by their DNA, and it can be done much more quickly than even a few years ago. Still, as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) notes, it takes time to identify whether a victim of food poisoning is a part of a particular outbreak:

The time from the beginning of the patient’s illness to the confirmation that he or she was part of an outbreak is typically about 2-3 weeks. Case counts in the midst of an outbreak investigation must be interpreted within this context.

Timeline for Reporting of E. coli Cases

Three weeks is a long time for produce to be at a grocery store. As Sen. Richard Durbin notes, though, this is another area where technology offers some hope for improvement:

In Congress, a leading advocate of food safety reforms said the industry would do well to listen to consumers on the need for tracing.

"We live in an age of technology where you can bar-code a banana," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "We've got to work this through with the industry and come up with something that's reasonable. The more confidence consumers have, the more goods they will purchase."

Poll: Tomato Scare Over, But Fears Remain

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and bar codes both provide increased ability to track individual shipments from place to place. Increased use of such technology would help a lot in tracing where infected food came from. More frequent inspections would help determine where there are potential risks of infection.

Not only does food inspection need to be improved here, it needs to be improved in at least some of the other countries we get our food from. Don't forget, even in Florida and southern California, crops don't grow year round. Some of the produce we buy in the winter was grown in another country, and maybe in another hemisphere.

At this point, I think we consumers need to be aware that our food comes from all over the world, that there are natural delays in the process of identifying infections after they've been introduced into the food supply, and that improvements in both prevention and detection are possible. Those circumstances, coupled with the diverse sources of supply available nowadays, means that finding and preventing sources of food contamination are more complicated than ever.

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