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Congressional panel airs problems in Salmonella investigation

WASHINGTON -- A congressional hearing on the role of traceability in the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak took the first stab at exposing the gaps in the investigation and the damage done to the produce industry.

"The poor handling of this outbreak has confused consumers and damaged producers," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-CA), who chaired the July 30 House Agriculture Subcommittee hearing.

"You could describe our current food-safety system as 'outbreak roulette.' One spin of the outbreak wheel and your industry may be bankrupt and your loved ones sickened," said Rep. Cardoza.

But federal health officials reported a big breakthrough in the investigation during the four-hour hearing.

The Food & Drug Administration found the outbreak strain of Salmonella Saintpaul on a Serrano pepper and in irrigation water in one Mexican farm, news that David Acheson, FDA's associate commissioner for foods, learned just hours before testifying at the hearing.

With the outbreak strain of Salmonella now on two commodities, FDA is testing other farms and Mexican distribution centers to determine how the contamination may have spread. FDA is also changing its consumer advisory to alert all consumers not to eat Mexican-grown Jalape?o and Serrano peppers.

While the news was welcomed that FDA was finally closing in on the outbreak source, members of Congress wanted to hear about what could be changed to prevent another economic disaster.

The produce industry and advocates for federal traceability legislation sparred on the role traceability played in extending the outbreak investigation.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), who advocates legislation to mandate traceability systems, said that the investigation was "agonizingly slow," adding that an industry-wide traceability system would have helped officials eliminate tomatoes and move to other produce items faster.

But Anthony DiMare, vice president of DiMare Homestead Inc. in Homestead, FL, said that federal officials should have reached out to the produce industry, which would have hastened the traceback process.

Federal officials should look to Minnesota's fast-moving traceback investigation that helped find the tainted Jalape?o pepper in Texas as evidence the industry is keeping records and identifying produce throughout the supply chain, said Hank Giclas of Western Growers Association.

Michael Osterholm, a former Minnesota health official, told Congress that Minnesota moved fast in identifying the Jalape?o lead because the state funds food safety as a high-priority item. He advocated the need to boost funding to state and local health agencies as they play a critical role in identifying foods implicated in outbreaks.

By the time news of a foodborne outbreak reaches FDA, "the footprint is already set" by state and local officials who have identified the commodity and restaurants, he said.

Traceability worked, stated Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, who added that the FDA kept tracing tomatoes back to farms, but the problem was that there were many farms and no common thread that pointed to tomatoes as the source of the problem.

"The [U.S. Center for Disease Control & Prevention] didn't have the right story from the beginning," said Mr. Stenzel.

The hearing often focused on the damage to the tomato industry, though Dr. Acheson defended FDA's decision to warn the public about tomatoes. "We have common distribution points and a farm where all three were grown," said Dr. Acheson, referring to tomatoes and the now-implicated Serrano and Jalape?o peppers.

Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-FL), who has introduced legislation to compensate tomato farmers, said that there needs to be more federal oversight of Mexican growers. U.S. growers have state officials overseeing their operations, but Mexico "basically operates without any oversight," he said.

Another common theme at the hearing was complaints that FDA did not reach out to the produce industry to gain insights on the supply chain. When the produce industry got a hold of illness data and determined that there were no repackers and no farms serving all those geographical areas, "they didn't listen," said Mr. Stenzel.

Produce Marketing Association President Bryan Silbermann said that there needs to be a standing committee of industry experts to aid federal investigators during outbreaks.

In the meantime, Mr. DiMare said that customers are asking for preharvest pathogen sampling, but there are no true standards in place for testing. "It's very frustrating," he said.

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