A couple of Friday reports helped shed a little light on the recent fiasco of a salmonella scare that started with tomatoes and ended with red-faced public health officials.
According to an AP story on the ABC News website, part of the difficulty in conducting a speedy, efficient investigation had to do with poor record keeping that was a result of weak regulations lobbied for by fruit and vegetable growers themselves:
The industry pressured the Bush administration years ago to limit the paperwork companies would have to keep to help U.S. health investigators quickly trace produce that sickens consumers, according to interviews and government reports reviewed by The Associated Press.
The White House also killed a plan to require the industry to maintain electronic tracking records that could be reviewed easily during a crisis to search for an outbreak’s source. Companies complained the proposals were too burdensome and costly, and warned they could disrupt the availability of consumers’ favorite foods.
The apparent but unintended consequences of the lobbying success: a paper record-keeping system that has slowed investigators, with estimated business losses of $250 million. So far, nearly 1,300 people in 43 states, the District of Columbia and Canada have been sickened by salmonella since April.
The rest of the story goes on to be a rather stinging rebuke of the lobbying groups that won the weakened regulations, but perhaps the unintended consequence of this coverage is that it essentially gives the FDA an out:
“If the FDA had been given the resources and authority years ago that it asked for to solve these kinds of problems, I think we would have solved this already,” said William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner.
While industry lobbyists definitely should not be spared blame here, let’s not forget that it was the job of the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the Centers for Disease Control, to track down this contamination, and that the break eventually came from scientists outside those federal agencies, as described in this other AP article that ran in USA Today:
On July 3, Minnesota e-mailed the feds. After tracing credit card receipts — to find what the restaurant’s healthy customers didn’t eat — there was good evidence that the jalapenos were sickening people. And, officials had a diagram tracing the pepper shipments all the way back to three farms in Mexico.
One of those farms shipped peppers through the same large warehouse in McAllen, Texas, where Food and Drug Administration inspectors weeks later would find a single contaminated Mexican-grown pepper being packed by a neighboring vendor.
It’s good this outbreak is moving behind us, but let’s not forget that this is also a “teachable moment,” as Mom would say. The ABC article did mention that the food industry is now willing to work with regulators to develop a more efficient tracking system. As long as blame keeps getting tossed around, the story will stay in the public eye, but once it starts fading into bureaucratic haziness, it will be up to diligent members of the press and public to police their own government agencies. Unless we want to start eating sandwiches without lettuce next, or forgo artichokes or asparagus or something, which will not fly in these parts.
[Photo: Jalapeno peppers via Florian/flickr]