Traceback is not the problem in Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak

On July 25, the Western Growers Association released the following statement on the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak. Western Growers is an agricultural trade association whose members from Arizona and California grow, pack and ship 90 percent of the fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in California and 75 percent of those commodities in Arizona.

On June 7, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a consumer alert directing the nation to stop consuming certain types of tomatoes. To this date, the federal agency has not announced an end to the investigation or the source of the contamination.

On June 27, the agency admitted that tomatoes may not have been responsible for the outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul and said instead they “were keeping an open mind” about other commodities being responsible for the outbreak.

Spokespersons for the FDA and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have cited difficulty tracing product consumed by those who became ill back through the supply chain, and a number of consumer groups have used these statements to dust off their calls for the federal government to require an electronic traceback system.

Disputing these calls are the facts: Yesterday the Minnesota Star Tribune reported that the Minnesota Department of Health had traced the source of their outbreak in less than two weeks. According to the article, Minnesota health officials “were on the phone July 9 with their federal counterparts making it ‘crystal clear’ it was not tomatoes but jalapenos that were the likely source.”

“Traceback is not the issue here,” says Western Growers’ President and CEO Tom Nassif. “The FDA and CDC initially claimed that tomatoes were the culprit. Now it is focusing on jalapenos. Were they looking in the wrong place? If so, no system of traceback, no matter how sophisticated would have made a difference in this two-month-long investigation.”

Corroborating this point, in an Associated Press article published today, Dr. David Acheson of the FDA was reported to dispute that an electronic records system would have helped investigators.

“Today there are good traceback laws in place that the produce industry supports and embraces,” says Nassif. “Nevertheless, Western Growers supports a risk-based approach to mandatory traceback, designed in collaboration by industry and that meets the needs of regulators. To say that the less-than effective and slow pace of the federal government’s investigation is because of traceback problems, is way off the mark.”

“There is no proof tomatoes were the culprit, but the entire industry is being made to pay the price for this early implication,” says Nassif. “The FDA has a moral and legal responsibility to establish a threshold for announcing a commodity is unsafe and an obligation to work with industry to perfect its ability to trace products faster.”

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