- An ongoing Salmonella outbreak traced back to tomatoes has affected 228 people across 22 U.S. states, with 25 instances needing hospitalization.
- The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) proposed ‘food protection plan’, aimed at creating a risk-based inspection system for food processing plants, seems to be largely unimplemented.
- The origin of the outbreak has been traced back to certain types of raw, red tomatoes. The FDA advises consumers to avoid eating raw, red, round, plum, and Roma tomatoes until the specific source is definitively determined.
- While Salmonella usually leads to 40,000 reported cases of salmonellosis a year in the U.S, much higher numbers are suspected due to many milder cases going undiagnosed.
- A large majority of Americans trust the safety of domestically-produced food, but there is a growing concern about food being imported from other countries.
In a developing health crisis, the number of individuals affected by the salmonella-carrying tomatoes outbreak has swelled to 228 across 22 states, with 25 cases requiring hospitalization, according to reports from U.S.-based health authorities.
Simultaneously, Congressional investigators have revealed that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has fallen short in achieving its professed objectives to safeguard the national food supply.
The FDA’s Food Protection Plan
Investigators from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) were scheduled to report to the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee, stating that the FDA’s performance in the implementation of the announced ‘food protection plan’ has been underwhelming. This plan, proposed by the agency in November, seemingly remains largely unacted upon.
“In March 2008, FDA officials suggested a progress report on the ‘food protection plan’ implementation would be released in April 2008. But as we entered June, this report still remained unpublished.
The food protection plan proposed establishing a risk-based inspection system for food processing plants. “This is particularly significant given the swelling numbers of food firms and the declining frequency of inspections,” according to the GAO’s report.
Finding the Source of the Outbreak
While health officials were inspecting the food protection plan’s progress, they were making progress in identifying the source of the recent salmonella outbreak from tainted tomatoes. The number of recorded cases continues to rise.
Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the FDA, stated, “We’re narrowing down on where these contamintated tomatoes came from. At this point, we have yet to definitively determine the source.”
Several states have been ruled out as potential origins for the contamination. However, Dr. Acheson suggested, “practically every other area remains under scrutiny as a possible source.”
The Nature and Scope of the Outbreak
Salmonella Saintpaul, an infrequent and aggressive strain of salmonella, is responsible for the outbreak. This variant accounts for about 400 reported cases every year in the U.S, according to Dr. Ian Williams, head of the OutbreakNet Team at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A cautionary warning about salmonella-infected tomatoes was extended throughout the country following the identification of the outbreak in May when around 20 people in New Mexico were infected by a genetically similar strain of salmonella. Another cluster was then identified in Texas. Following this, officials successfully traced the disease back to infected tomatoes.
Presently, the salmonella outbreak seems to be associated with specific types of raw, red tomatoes and products containing these tomatoes. As of now, the FDA advises consumers to avoid eating raw, red, round, plum, and Roma tomatoes.
Advice for Consumers
“With the source yet to be determined, consumers will need to do some investigative work before consuming tomatoes or tomato products,” advises Tony Corbo, legislative representative for Food & Water Watch, a consumer group based out of Washington, D.C., ensuring clean water and food safety.
Further precaution also comes with the FDA’s recommendation to grocery stores, restaurants, and other food service providers— they should refrain from serving raw, red Roma, red plum, and round red tomatoes unless their source is confirmed to be unconnected with the outbreak. Uncertain customers are advised to reach out to the store where they made the purchase for information about where the tomatoes were grown or harvested.
Dealing with the Outbreak on a Larger Scale
Several large fast food, restaurant and grocery chains have proactively pulled red plum, red Roma or round red tomatoes off their shelves, if they were not grown in specific states and countries.
The FDA recommends raw red plum, raw red Roma or raw round red tomatoes should only be consumed if they are grown and harvested from a list of specific areas.
The Disease in Perspective
Salmonella is a bacterium which causes bloody diarrhea in humans. While 40,000 cases of salmonellosis (an infection with salmonella) are reported in the U.S annually, the CDC estimates that the actual figure may be 30 times or more greater, considering that many milder cases go undiagnosed. These infections claim roughly 600 lives every year.
Public Confidence in Food Safety
Despite numerous food safety incidents in recent years, a majority (95%) of Americans possess confidence in the safety of food produced domestically. However, there’s growing concern over food imported from other nations, as revealed by a Harvard School of Public Health poll. The poll also indicated that considerable portions of respondents hold only limited confidence in various entities involved in food production and provision.
For more details on the ongoing salmonella outbreak, visit the site of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.