Tomatoes are once again implicated in a large and serious foodborne illness outbreak. To date CDC has identified hundreds of victims of Salmonella saintpaul, a somewhat unusual or rare serotype of Salmonella, and one death is suspected.
Investigators are hampered by lack of traceability amongst other problems. FDA reports that investigators are encountering boxes of tomatoes without labels. Such problems make it difficult to determine safe from unsafe sources, and force FDA to only issue general information about which tomatoes are likely safe. As a result, hundreds of millions of tomatoes must be destroyed and the US tomato industry has experienced huge financial losses. This is extremely troubling at a time when food scarcities are enveloping many of the world’s poorest nations.
Much of the blame for this tragic situation lies squarely with FDA’s non-existent and ineffective regulation of the produce industry. There are no laws specifically regulating how produce is grown, labled and handled. FDA has been providing guidance to the produce industry for at least 10 years but it is unknown if the industry is applying it since there are no regulatory inspections of produce safety. Florida and North Carolina are attempting to work with FDA on a state inspection program called the Tomato Initiative, but the work is very preliminary and will not be effective for years.
The produce industry is filling in the gaps by self-regulation whereby growers, packers and distributors are subject to industry mandated food safety audits conducted by third party firms. The weakness in this "buyer driven" safety model is that buyers, the middlemen between the retailer and the producer, make buying decision based primarily on price and quality and do not hold food safety as their first priority.
The consumer is now at the mercy of this ineffective food safety system and the produce industry is reeling from the financial effects. Lobbying by the associations representing the food industry since the mid 1990’s has kept regulatory agencies under financed and ineffective. Now that they need them, they are incapable of providing protection. It is indeed interesting to note these associations now have their own food safety schemesthat they sell to the industry as a fix for the very problem they helped create. Industry interference with regulatory efforts is to blame for the crisis state of FDA, and the produce industry is now reaping a bitter harvest of unsafe foods.
Clearly the answers to unsafe foods must be found in Washington. However, with the distractions of war, inflated fuel prices and a sluggish economy (mostly caused by unregulated profiteering in the housing market) Washington is ill prepared to mount an effective food safety policy and to fix America’s neglected public health infrastructure.
Consumers are losing confidence in supermarket produce and are turning to local farmers for a better quality and presumably safer product. Supermarkets will continue to suffer as consumers spend their food dollar elsewhere. Self seeking food industry leaders must blame only themselves for their tomato woes.