On July 1, the FDA held a media briefing to respond to reporters’ questions about the salmonella outbreak associated with tomatoes.
In response to widespread criticisms that the agency is taking too long to pinpoint the exact source of contamination, FDA officials attempted to explain why such investigations are challenging.
“The process of investigation is complex and often difficult, and when CDC and the states conduct a foodborne outbreak investigation, it’s like a detective trying to solve a case,” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases. “We often have to rely on people’s memory about things that are not very memorable, such as what they ate last week, or the week before or the week before that. People may remember many things, but they may not remember everything they ate, and they may not realize or remember that many of the things that they ate have many different ingredients.”
Investigators interview people who have become ill, as well as others who haven’t been sickened.
“It might be family members, or neighbors or other people that are in the area,” Dr Tauxe says. “And then we compare that information. This process often produces a number of suggestions or leads; in this case, it revealed a strong association between consumption of raw tomatoes and cases of illness.”
The second notable topic was the FDA’s activation of FERN, a food emergency response network that will work with labs across the country to expand testing. This will increase the agency’s lab capacity, as state labs will be called upon to pick up some of the federal slack.
“We’ve done this before,” said Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for food. “We did it with spinach, to some extent, and we did it with melamine. It allows these labs to be using common methods so that everybody’s using the same system.”
And then came the $64,000 question: How can similar incidents be prevented?
“We clearly need to be asking ourselves what we need to be doing to reduce the likelihood of a repeat of this in the future,” Dr. Acheson said. “ I think many are already asking that question. Why is it taking so long, and what do we need to do to address that?”
He answered his own question with the following action steps:
- Explore the creation of an interagency task force to ensure food protection efforts are fully coordinated among federal agencies and state and local governments. (And we’re not already doing this because…?)
- Hold corporations accountable for the food they produce. (Sorry. Homer Simpson just shouted “D’oh!” over my shoulder.) Please allow Dr. Acheson to state the obvious: “Ultimately, it is the industry’s legal and ethical responsibility to ensure that the food they provide to consumers is safe, wholesome and free of contamination.” (Pinch me. Is this really happening?)
- Congress should act on the FDA’s November request for the authority to implement a food protection plan. (Call your congressional reps, folks.)
That’s about all I can handle for today, dear readers, without spontaneously combusting. I’ll follow up soon with more info.