andrew schneider investigates

July 1, 2008

If not tomatoes, what’s causing it?

OK, so it’s not tomatoes that have sickened thousands across the country, but federal food detectives admit they’re not sure what has led to more than 869 confirmed cases of Salmonella Saintpaul.

Many food-safety activists are just having a nut-out over admissions by the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration that after weeks of searching they still don’t know the source of the illness.

The mystery deepens because most previous outbreaks from contaminated fresh tomatoes usually run their course in a few weeks at most. People are still getting ill three months into this The episode.

Today, Consumers Union called on Congress to mandate traceability for fruits and vegetables and for the FDA to establish strong safety standards for produce.

“The FDA should not have to spend its modest resources trying to track down the source of food contamination for weeks and even months, while more consumers continue to get sick,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy for the consumer safety group.

She said federal lawmakers should require modern electronic record keeping systems that go from farm to table.

“If Fed Ex can keep track of all its packages moving around the country, the produce industry should be able to do the same,” Halloran added.

The FDA announced that it had still not identified the cause of the problem.

Late today, the CDC added that “many clusters of illnesses have been identified in Texas and other states among persons who ate at restaurants.”

“These clusters have led us to broaden the investigation to be sure that it encompasses food items that are commonly consumed with tomatoes,” according to the spokesperson.

The CU said that identifiers on each package or container of food would allow FDA to trace the shipment back to the field in which it originated. The consumer organization has repeatedly called for the consolidation of the 15 agencies that oversee our food safety system.

Epidemiologists say that studies on previous outbreaks of foodborne disease have shown that for each confirmed case, about 37 go unreported, which means that in this long-running outbreak more than 31,000 people may have been sickened.


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