WASHINGTON — Produce growers are calling for changes in the way the U.S. Food and Drug Administration handles product recalls in the wake of last week's announcement that tomatoes were likely not to blame for the salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 1,250 consumers and grabbed headlines in recent weeks.
The FDA last week said it had found a single, Mexican-grown jalapeno pepper at a facility operated by produce shipper Agricola Zaragoza in McAllen, Texas, that was contaminated with Salmonella Saintpaul, a unique strain of salmonella that has linked all of the consumers affected by the outbreak. Just days before, on July 17, the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had lifted their consumer warning on Roma and red round tomatoes — which had been the primary suspects in the investigation — announcing in a joint statement that “consumers may enjoy all tomatoes that are available in the U.S. marketplace without regard for their origin.”
The move was of little consolation to growers, or retailers. The Perishables Group recently reported that unit sales of Roma and red round tomatoes were down 46.1% in June. Volume sales for the entire tomato category, including non-implicated varieties, fell 17% last month. Tomato producers are estimating that their losses may reach $250 million, and the Florida tomato industry last week announced plans to lobby Congress for monetary compensation.
Now the fallout has shifted to jalapeno peppers, with retailers including Kroger, Albertsons, Wegmans, Whole Foods Market and H.E. Butt Grocery pulling them from their shelves.
Many produce industry leaders are now questioning whether tomatoes should have been implicated in the case at all, and are calling for the FDA to work more closely with the produce industry on recall efforts to speed the process up, and to avoid unnecessary consumer scares.
“The CDC identified tomatoes as a likely suspect [in the outbreak], but there was never any definitive proof,” noted Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of the United Fresh Produce Association. “It was done through statistical association, and then they started looking for evidence to see if maybe tomatoes were the cause.”
During that process, growers and packers did help the FDA trace tomatoes back to their farms of origin, but those investigations kept running into dead ends.
“Say someone got sick in New York, and someone got sick in Washington, D.C.,” Stenzel said as a hypothetical example. “They both ate tomatoes. FDA thinks tomatoes may be the cause. But when you start tracing those [tomatoes] back, it turns out that the New York tomatoes came from Mexico, and the tomatoes eaten in Washington, D.C., came from Florida. The FDA says the traceback didn't work. That's false. The traceback did work, but what it was indicating was that those tomatoes were not contaminated by a common source, and probably weren't contaminated at all.”
The FDA has emphasized that the investigation is ongoing, and that it has not ruled out tomatoes as a potential cause of illnesses last month. But in the meantime, many affected tomato growers' seasons have already come and gone, so for better or worse, the agency has said it is confident that any suspect tomatoes are out of the supply chain by now.
The investigation has lasted almost two months at this point, and many produce industry leaders say that the way the FDA and CDC handled their consumer warnings — first issuing a blanket warning on two popular varieties of tomatoes, then building a list of production regions that had been deemed safe, then announcing the possibility that cilantro, jalapenos and peppers that look like jalapenos might also be responsible for the outbreak, all without finding a single contaminated item — left a lot to be desired.
“Frustration in the industry is very high,” said Julia Stewart, public relations director for the Produce Marketing Association. “We all put food safety and consumer health first and foremost. That's a requirement for our business.
“That said, we've watched an industry get crushed by this investigation and by constantly changing information. We're hearing stories of growers plowing their plants under, not even harvesting them, because they are not confident that they can sell them.”
Stewart did note that the CDC has to do a great deal of legwork to develop its hypotheses before it begins working with the industry and the FDA on traceback efforts. Sick consumers have to be interviewed, and the agency has to figure out what products they have all eaten that could potentially be responsible for the illness. But she added that when the produce industry was approached for traceback information, almost all growers and distributors were able to provide that information quickly.
“Once it got to that point, we were able, quickly, to give them the records they were looking for,” she said. “That doesn't mean that our traceback processes are perfect by any means. They're not, but we were able to give them the records they needed.”
Unfortunately, many growers have their own systems for record-keeping, Stewart said. So, the FDA was left with huge reams of non-standardized data to sift through, prolonging the process.
If there is a silver lining to this outbreak, it's that it will likely increase communication between the FDA and the produce industry, and accelerate the development of standardized traceability systems. To that end, PMA, United Fresh and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association have been working on their Produce Traceability Initiative since last year.
“The end goal would be to have electronic record-keeping in a standardized format,” Stewart said. “That way, the FDA wouldn't have to deal with all of these individual proprietary systems.”