The Mysterious Cause...
Photo courtesy of State Symbols USA

So, it wasn’t a tomato after all. It was either a jalapeno or seranno pepper which caused the outbreak that completely shut down the tomato market for three weeks. Florida growers alone estimate an economic hit of 47 million dollars.

Today in Longworth House Office Building, the Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture held a Public Hearing on this outbreak. California Democrat Dennis Cardoza presided. . It was poorly attended by his fellow Congressmen; only one from Texas, and one from Florida thought the issue worthy enough to weigh in on. But called before the Committee were Dr Lonnie King from the CDC, and Dr. Acheson from the FDA.

This hearing makes it official. No signs of the St Paul strain were ever found on any tomatoes. At this point in time, the strain has been only positively identified on one pepper in a Texas warehouse. That pepper was traced to a Mexican farm, where the same strain has now been found in the irrigation water. Additional peppers from that farm are still in the process of being tested.

American farmers grow food under stricter standards than do their foreign competitors. Under rigorous questioning, the FDA admitted that it does not have adequate resources to test every type of food for every possible contaminant. In this particular case, improperly treated sewage was used to irrigate crops. One should not be surprised. Almost all produce grown on farms in desert climates, use recycled sewage as a well documented method of recycling the desert’s most precious commodity: water.

Bryan Silberman from Newark, Delaware testified in a quick summary, speaking as the head of the Produce Marketing Association,

Traceability has received a technological boost because of the Bioterrorism Act. But record keeping is not new. Since 1930, record keeping has been federally required to assist in the tracking of fresh produce.

The Produce Marketing Association is recommending 3 common elements to speed up the ability to trace products. The link required to speed up traceability, he said, is to mandate the use a sticker on every case of globally produced product. These stickers would contain three important pieces of information: the global trade item number, the lot number, and the harvest or pack date. Use of bar codes capable of tracing that information, could speed up traceability eventually to a few minutes, with no bureacratic cost involved…

The Bar code would be a baton, passed from one link to the next, capable of being tracked from the start line to to the finish.

This bar code would need to be both machine and human readable, but if done on a global scale, it could speed up the formation of an action plan and collapse the time line between recognizing the initial outbreak, and issuing correct advisements to America’s public.

Currently there are not yet any solutions before the government. As a nation, we are still in the process of determining what went wrong… But what this salmonella outbreak did demonstrate, was the industry’s ability to follow a food product backwards from a restaurant to the farm.Technology currently exists which CAN provide unique knowledge to assist in the tracking of pathogens.

In the future, industry officials want changes in the FDA so that government agency feels freer to work alongside the industry itself. This St. Paul strain of Salmonella Outbreak case illustrates the parts of the system which as of yet, do not work well.

Thomas Stenzel of the United Fresh Produce Association said that from the restaurant to the farm…… Traceability worked. Initially we were able to follow the item backward from the sick consumer to the farms. The problem with tomatoes occurred because the evidence pointed to many different farms. There appeared to be a widespread, instead of a common point of contamination. As the sickness began being traced to different farms nationwide…. the natural assumption was that a major widespread tomato outbreak was under way….. Someone should have asked the question… maybe it wasn’t a tomato? Later, as it became obvious that tomatoes were not the source of contamination, all began to realize that someone should have realized it sooner…. Traceability works. For once the jalapeno peppers were targeted, investigators showed up at a small distributor on the outside edge of McAllen, Texas, tested a pepper, and bingo…. Then from there, back to the farm.

All locally grown jalapenos are still good. Almost all of Mexican jalapenos are still good, with the exception of one farm … We need to make that determination in our public statements. Geography is not shorthand. To say that all Mexican peppers are bad, is harmful.

The economic damage done to tomato farmers, is worse than that of a hurricane or flood. Farmers, produce distributors, and consumers all had to dump tomatoes and peppers. All groups suffered losses. On a side note, insurance companies reimburse damage done by Mother nature. They do not cover food lost to outbreaks…..

When asked what problems this outbreak illuminated for the Produce Marketing Associations, Bryan Silberman of Newark, Delaware said that the tight grasp on information being held tight to its chest by the FDA, made assisting in the investigation difficult.

It was like an orthopedic fiber optic scope not being able to see, Bryan said, on being asked to comment: “We were all being asked to comment without knowing any of the details.”

“What did fail in trace-back?” all were asked. No specific answers were forthcoming. Just a general consensus that it turned out to be the wrong item we were tracing… Human error. Once again the technology was sound. The humans operating it were not…..

So what is needed? Dr. Acheson of the FDA, laid it out specifically: more money to inspect. more money to train. Often the field investigators showing up at farms, came from other FDA departments such as pharmaceuticals. These people hadn’t a clue of what to search out, and had to call there on the spot, their department head in order to get the right questions needed to ask the farmers…

In an food outbreak, the FDA are the cops; they treat the industry as if it did something wrong. In a establishing a new system, the first recommended step would be to bring in industry experts. A solution would be to pre-vet through security, experts in each field. There are jalapeno experts still out there, who have not yet been contacted by FDA… For one, the field of investigators is spread too thin, and this recent round, points clearly to that deficiency… Most experts were not contacted because in an investigation they were not trusted, just as a family member’s testimony involving a crime within that family, is also not to be trusted. Common sense dictates that the FDA establish relationships with industry experts who have previously undergone a thorough security clearance, and have significant security clearance so that they can be called in at the first signs of a problem…..

University of Minnesota (Go Gophers) public health professor, Michael Osterholm, commended his dedicated group of graduate students (who affectionately call themselves ” The Diarrhea Squad”) which found the outbreak and should be credited for the initial finding and tracing of this strain.

Rep Tim Mahoney (Fl) is interested in implementing a uniform system. Right now the standards in Mexico are different from those of our domestic production.

For example a new request being made of food growers, pre-harvest pathogen testing, has no true standards for industry to follow. Different customers are demanding different standards. Standardization would help simplify this new request requiring new technology.

Growers keep records to insure they get paid for their product. Developing a “Standard Label” which is third world compatible would allow us to trace a food product anywhere around the globe.

However domestic local growers, selling in local farmer’s markets, open a new problem. There is little accountability with local produce being grown by individuals.. But large chains like Wal*mart have started buying locally. This small producer is going to become a critical problem… For as the economy sours, and everyone sees their half an acre as a money-making opportunity, anything can show up in the food chain. It will be a real problem to monitor all of the local produce showing up on our tables, if this trend continues…..

Currently the “FDA is under funded, under sourced, has little oversight or inspection.” said Rep. Mahoney (D FL). “They are not equipped for this new challenge.”

One trend currently occurring is that as American companies go to Mexico, they are taking their best practices with them and insisting that their practices be enforced within that local market…

Whereas private industry has stepped up with innovation, the weakest link in our defense against pathogens on produce, is the underfunded FDA which is struggling under the Bush cuts.

The industry’s current estimate is that more than 50% of produce companies have their data on electronic records… Mandatory tracing is something that the entire industry could reasonably adjust to. Tracing was not the problem. Within hours or days we can trace right up to a single farm. But at what cost? That is the limitation. Agencies, federal and state, with no funds cannot send agents out into the field. So far no proposed legislation has been proposed

Florida growers informally and voluntary adopted a tomato model of tracing distribution which will be implemented by the agriculture department of Florida and may perhaps be used nationwide someday…

Produce traceability has been in effect since end of last year. Produce associations continue to build the system. The time line for implementation will be determined by the August 20 steering committee and will be made public later.

As mentioned before, adequate record keeping already exists. At some future point in time when those records are married to electronic bar code reading system , we will have a vast improvement of traceability. The economic driving force of this, is the cost effectiveness coming from both standardization and efficiency. At one point in time every grocer had a different sticker, with a different number on its produce, The system still worked but made comparing records between grocers rather difficult.. Now with unified codes, one can do so efficiently on one computer.

This has been the most expensive year in history to plant a corp. Crop insurance does not cover outbreaks. Is Federal compensation justified? Or should crop insurance be extended to cover such outbreaks? Last month’s outbreak cost 18 million in losses to just one domestic Florida company, a loss over which they had no control, for it was not caused by them.

Perhaps in time some accountability will be in order….