Arnulfo Franco/AP
U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services Secretary Michael Leavitt

Early Reports Indicated Concern over Peppers Before Salmonella Outbreak Began

August 21, 2008 06:50 AM
by Lindsey Chapman
Inspectors rejected questionable pepper shipments from Mexico before the start of the U.S. salmonella outbreak, but FDA officials say they were still surprised by the event.

Peppers Under Investigation Now

For the last year, peppers and chilies from Mexico were the crop most often rejected by inspectors at the border. However, the FDA said as recently as one week ago that the months-long salmonella outbreak in the United States came as a surprise because peppers hadn't been cited as a problem before.

Hundreds of salmonella cases later, the problem has been traced to Mexican chilies. "If the fact that they were showing up on problem lists for a year doesn't make them high-risk, I don't know what does," said Ami Gadhia, policy counsel with the Consumers Union.

Bob Buchanan, a former senior science adviser at the FDA said the agency prioritizes the risky foods it will watch years in advance. Because fresh chilies haven't been on that list, they may have been overlooked more easily, Buchanan explained.

Since April, more than 1,400 people have been sickened in the outbreak.

During the tomato warning, grocers, restaurant chains and distributors dumped an estimated $100 million to $250 million of tomatoes into the garbage, infuriating produce industry leaders who say the FDA should have been more certain before claiming tomatoes were the source of the salmonella outbreak.

"If they're going to do that kind of economic damage to a commodity group, then they should have a very firm foundation for making that determination," said Tom Nassif, chief executive of the Western Growers Association, an industry group.

"The fact that we cannot prove that they were contaminated is going to stay with us forever," said FDA food-safety chief David Acheson.

The tomato scare, along with a spate of food-borne illnesses, has drawn attention to how the FDA handles food safety issues.

"Federal officials, who now say the salmonella has been traced to peppers grown in Mexico, should be held responsible for the tomato market crash by at least accompanying every affected farmer as he or she visits the bank to explain why loan repayments will at best this year be delayed," said Gary W. Black of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Reactions: Farmers and health officials have their say

“What Katrina did for FEMA this salmonella thing is going to do for the FDA,” warned tomato grower Bob Spencer. “They are going to have to be much more prudent before ringing the alarm bell.” Lisa Lochridge, a spokeswoman with the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said that even though health officials looked like they were second-guessing their assumptions about tomatoes, it was “not an about-face” on their stance. “There is still a strong association with tomatoes but there may be another source,” Lochridge stated.

Tennessee’s state epidemiologist Tim Jones said he thought everyone would “be very apologetic” if tomatoes weren’t the source of the salmonella strain. The produce industry, however, would likely “insist on congressional hearings” and a close examination of how the tomato investigation was conducted, said Jim Prevor, editor of Produce Business magazine. “This is a real disaster.” Produce Business estimates that tomato farmers and distributors could lose up to $250 million.

Background: Looking for the cause

Opinion & Analysis: Who is to blame?

Related Topics: Food-borne illnesses, Canada affected

Reference: Salmonella


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