FDA unlikely to trace 'smoking gun' in salmonella outbreak

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food safety, Foodborne illness, Salmonella, Fda

It is highly likely that the source of the recent salmonella outbreak linked to raw tomatoes will not be traceable, claims the US Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Since April, 991 persons in 41 US states, the District of Columbia, and Canada have been infected with Salmonella ​Saintpaul linked to raw red plum, raw red Roma, or raw red round tomatoes and products containing these raw tomatoes, according to figures released yesterday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The FDA has so far been unable to trace back the source of the contamination. Last week, the food safety agency announced that it is expanding its investigation into the cause of the outbreak, which so far had focused solely on fresh tomatoes; it will now include additional produce items that are commonly served in combination with tomatoes. However, Howard Seltzer, national education advisor at the FDA's Centre for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition told FoodProductionDaily.com that it is highly likely that the investigation will not provide a 'smoking gun' that would enable officials to pinpoint the source of the contamination. He said that out of the hundreds of samples analysed, none has tested positive for Salmonella​ Saintpaul. "Salmonella is a highly mobile bacterium that easily travels the path from origination through to distribution to infection,"​ explained Seltzer. "Like any investigation, the trail gets colder with each passing day. Because there is such a long lead time between the time people were infected and the time those cases were confirmed and reported to the CDC, by the time we start our traceback the source can be very elusive,"​ he conceded. Tomatoes that are safe to eat, claims the FDA, include cherry, grape, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached and home-grown tomatoes as well as raw red plum, raw red Roma, or raw red round tomatoes that are grown and harvested from areas that have not been associated with the outbreak. SalmonellaSalmonella​ is one of the most common enteric (intestinal) infections in the US with an estimated 1.4 million cases of salmonellosis occurring each year: 95 per cent of those cases are foodborne-related. Salmonella​ infection occurs when the bacteria are ingested, typically from food derived from infected food-animals, but it can also occur by ingesting the faeces of an infected animal or person. Food Protection Plan​ Last week, the FDA released a progress report on its six-month-old Food Protection Plan. The plan, according to the agency, contains ten legislative proposals that are currently before Congress and seek to give the agency greater capacity to prevent, respond and intervene in foodborne related illness. One of the recommendations is that the FDA should have the authority to impose stringent handling controls on fresh produce growers and suppliers to avert the outbreak of Salmonella, E. coli​ and other illness-causing pathogens. Call to action

Meanwhile, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) wrote to the FDA last week urging emergency regulations requiring traceability of fresh produce to allow health officials to react more quickly when a pathogen-related outbreak occurs. "Effective traceability labelling must encompass the multiple steps along the path from farm to table, including farm-of-origin, packer, distributor, and retailer,"​ they said in a letter to FDA commissioner Dr Andrew von Eschenbach. "Such a system should use a standardized code for all FDA-regulated items to streamline investigations and ensure effective record-keeping by all entities along the production chain,"​ added the food safety and consumer watchdogs. Safe-handling​ In response, Seltzer said that while traceability is important, the FDA believes it should have the authority to impose mandatory safe-handling rules on fresh produce growers and suppliers. He claims that these rules "would create 'preventative controls', on growers and suppliers of foods linked to repeated outbreaks of serious illness such as tomatoes and leafy greens."Tomato initiative

During the past decade, the consumption of fresh and fresh-cut tomatoes has been linked to 12 different outbreaks of foodborne illness in the US. Those outbreaks include 1,840 confirmed cases of illness. In response to these outbreaks, last year the FDA began a multi-year Tomato Safety Initiative to reduce the incidence of tomato-related foodborne illness. The Initiative is a collaborative effort between FDA and the state health and agriculture departments in Virginia and Florida, in cooperation with several universities and members of the produce industry. The FDA said that, since October 2007, it has led assessments of grower practice focusing on the factors believed to be associated with contamination of tomatoes with Salmonella.​ And in a further extension of these food safety initiatives, the FDA and the California Department of Public Health announced in autumn last year that safety efforts would have a broader focus on leafy greens, including spinach.

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