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How Did FDA Get it Wrong on Tomatoes?

After announcing Wednesday that the “smoking jalapenno ” had been found on a farm in Mexico, witnesses at a hearing Thursday continued to dance around the key problem with the salmonella investigation, which we identified three weeks ago: early mistakes by the New Mexico department of health and the Centers for Disease Control doomed the investigation.

Members of Congress and their witnesses from the world of public health and the food industry spent most of the two days of hearings this week debating whether new FDA regulations were needed for tracing produce. There was also some snark exchanged over the fact that the food industry itself had lobbied for less stringent tracing requirements when Congress issued new food safety guidelines in 2002 as part of the bioterror legislation. At this week’s hearings, the industry called for the FDA to do more.

But there were occasional moments of clarity. “The real place where this started was the identification of tomatoes as the culprit at the CDC,” said Thomas Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations. While the FDA may have been slow and failed to release information fast enough, Stenzel said, its investigation into the contaminated produce was narrowed to tomatoes based on the CDC’s analysis. This in turn was based on early, apparently flawed epidemiological work done by New Mexico investigators on Navajo Indian reservations. “We didn’t make a mistake,” said an exasperated David Acheson, the FDA’s point man on the crisis. “Our investigation was based on what the states and the CDC told us.”

The culprit was narrowed early to tomatoes, but after more than 1,400 tomato samples had been tested, none turned up positive for Salmonella saintpaul. “The hearing today should be about the CDC and state public health departments,” noted John Shimkus (R-Ill.) the ranking GOP subcommittee member. “That’s where the system failed us.” It’s not a question of pointing fingers–New Mexico reportedly has a small, underfunded public health department, and even the best epidemiologists make mistakes. Tim Jones, state epidemiologist of Tennessee, noted that state public health budgets have sunk over the past decade, despite occasional surges of federal money spurred by scares such as anthrax or pandemic flu. But if the government is to learn anything from this problematic outbreak, which has now caused more than 1,300 cases of illness in 43 states, it ought to begin by looking in the right places.

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