By Clarissa Kell-Holland
For nearly three months now, federal officials have been unsuccessful in trying to pinpoint the source of the largest produce-linked salmonella outbreak in U.S. history. It had sickened more than 900 people in 40 states and Washington, DC, as of early July.
Some truckers have shied away from hauling any tomatoes until the coast is clear as officials attempt to sort out whether certain types of tomatoes – red Roma, red round and red plum – are indeed the culprits as originally suspected. Other produce served with the tomatoes in such dishes as salsa and guacamole may be to blame, but officials are not sure.
As of press time, FDA investigators were still looking at the two top growing regions for tomatoes – Mexico and Florida – for clues into what may have caused the outbreak tied to the rare Saint Paul strain. All points in the food supply chain are still being investigated, including farms where the tomatoes were grown, irrigation systems, and washing and storage facilities. In July, the FDA announced it was also focusing on packing houses and shipping docks as potential entry points for the source of the contamination.
According to the Centers for Disease Control’s Web site, 117 people in the U.S. were known to be affected by this particular strain of bacteria in 2007.
Fool me twice, no way
OOIDA member and produce hauler Gayland Monday told Land Line Magazine recently he made the decision to play it safe – no tomatoes of any kind on his five trucks.
Monday, who lives in Queen City, TX, said he’s not taking any chances hauling potentially contaminated tomatoes until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pinpoints the source of the contaminated produce.
He learned that tactic the hard way.
Almost two years ago, when an outbreak linked to E. coli in bagged spinach was announced, Monday had pallets of the potentially contaminated product on his trailer. The spinach was refused at the warehouse when he tried to unload, and he was left holding the bag.
Monday said he lost a day’s wages just trying to figure out what to do with the rejected spinach. Then he had to offload the pallets and pay someone to dump the bagged spinach at a landfill. He also had to pay the landfill, but he wasn’t reimbursed by the shipper for his costs.
“I am just not going to haul tomatoes until this is all cleared up. I am just not going to do it after what I went through the last time with the whole spinach mess,” he said. “I don’t want to take a chance and maybe have these tomatoes on my trucks and then have them rejected when I try to deliver them.”
OOIDA member Howard Salmon, a produce hauler from Anderson, CA, normally hauls tomatoes this time of year. He said he’s not opposed to hauling them, despite the outbreak, but he can’t find any tomatoes to haul.
“Nobody’s buying tomatoes anywhere right now so I have had to find other commodities like cherries and strawberries to haul at a time when tomatoes are usually my bread and butter,” he told Land Line in late June.
OOIDA’s food fight
heads into year two
For almost two years now, leaders of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association have been critical of the FDA and have been weighing in on the food safety debate.
OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Specialist Joe Rajkovacz testified at an FDA hearing on produce truckers’ issues in April of 2007. However, he said, the agency has yet to include truckers in any meaningful discussions on food safety issues, even through food is usually in transit when a recall is issued.
The OOIDA has been critical of the FDA’s Food Protection Plan since the Government Accountability Office issued a report citing problems with the plan late last year. The House Energy and Commerce’s oversight and investigations subcommittee met in June to voice their concerns with the FDA’s food safety plan, as well.
“We have been critical of the FDA and their handling of food safety issues for almost two years now. And still these outbreaks keep occurring, and the agency is still not doing what it needs to be doing,” Rajkovacz said. “It seems the FDA would rather cater to the produce industry and continue to play with people’s health than take a stand and develop meaningful oversight of the food industry.”
While the FDA has spent crucial time ruling out which states or areas they are not looking at as being associated with the current outbreak, the agency still has no answers as to what may be responsible for the outbreak.
Recently, the Western Growers Association, a trade group representing the majority of the fresh produce grown in California and Arizona, called for the House Agriculture Committee to investigate the FDA on the salmonella outbreak associated with tomatoes.
While investigators continue to look for the source of the outbreak, the FDA has issued advisory warnings against eating certain types of tomatoes.
Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, said tomato growers are suffering “irreparable harm” as the FDA and CDC try to determine the source of the outbreak.
“Congress must investigate this matter and determine ways to avoid this in the future and make the innocent tomato growers, packers and shippers whole,” said Nassif in a written statement. “The collateral damage inflicted on thousands of innocent producers in this country by FDA blanket ‘advisories,’ such as with spinach and tomatoes cannot go unchallenged.”
Rajkovacz said he understands the frustration growers are feeling as the tomato industry stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars because of this latest outbreak tied to tomatoes. However, he said Nassif and Western Growers are missing the point by asking Congress to investigate the FDA for issuing advisory warnings to alert consumers when there is a potential health risk associated with a product.
“What Western Growers is essentially saying here is that the FDA is supposed to keep their mouth shut about potential problems with a product until they pinpoint the exact source of an outbreak so as not to damage the public’s perception against buying a certain product,” Rajkovacz said.
“In the meantime, how many people would be put at risk or sickened because they weren’t warned about potential contamination dangers? This is purely a political maneuver by the produce industry to again thwart the federal regulatory process.”
Three months later, contamination source still unknown William Nganje, associate professor at the Morrison School of Management and Agribusiness at Arizona State University, said the FDA is using extreme caution before announcing the potential source because of “liability issues.”
“One of the challenges that we face when we get a food outbreak or major food recall is the amount of time it takes to really pinpoint it down to the source,” he told Land Line in May.
In February 2008, Nganje, along with four other ASU faculty members, received a grant to study all aspects of the food supply chain on imported produce coming across the border between Arizona and Nogales, Mexico, which is one of the busiest ports at the Southwest border.
He said this latest outbreak tied to tomatoes is another example of the need for a universal traceback system to track produce through the supply chain.
“This latest outbreak is really big, so this contamination is coming from a significant source, like water, but we really don’t know because there is no traceback system in place,” Nganje said. “This is one of the problems we have in the fresh produce industry, that there are no mandatory guidelines like there are for beef and poultry. Everything is voluntary – recommended – but not mandatory.”
Cost is a major reason some of the growers are hesitant to implement a traceback system, but Nganje said this latest outbreak has crippled the entire tomato industry, even in regions where the tomatoes have been cleared, because the source has not been identified.
“Policy is going to drive food safety in terms of fixing the problems in the produce industry. Whether that policy is voluntary or mandatory, we just don’t know yet,” he said. LL