July 30, 2008
Salmonella Outbreak Shows Weaknesses in Safety System
Washington, DC—Consumers Union calls on Congress to mandate traceability for fruits and vegetables among many reforms needed to strengthen the safety of produce in testimony today before a House Committee on Agriculture subcommittee. It took months for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to trace back a recent outbreak of salmonella to its source, peppers, while consumers believed tomatoes were the culprit.
“We believe that had a good traceability system been in place for tomatoes four months ago, FDA would have gotten to the bottom of this salmonella outbreak much more quickly,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union. “With traceability, FDA investigators could much more quickly have followed what people ate back through the distribution chain, could much more quickly have sampled along that chain, and could much more quickly understood that tomatoes were most likely not the source of the problem.”
At a minimum, there should be more information on product labels to track produce, according to Consumers Union Labels or marks on produce packages and boxes, and when possible, on the product itself (such as with fruit), should show country, facility, date and time where the item was first processed or shipped. Consumers Union also believes Congress should mandate a “Fed Ex”-type system, whereby a label or mark would allow the product to be tracked electronically all the way from the farm to the consumer. Then, if there is a report of contamination, everyone knows where the product has been and where it could have been contaminated. But a new traceability system is not the only answer.
“As much as traceability will help, the ability to trace back in response to a disease outbreak is not the whole solution. FDA should be acting proactively to prevent these outbreaks from occurring in the first place,” says Halloran. “The FDA needs other enhancements to its resources and authority to be able to prevent as well as respond to food safety problems effectively.”
Consumers Union is calling on Congress to strengthen the FDA by increasing funding to perform yearly inspections of processing plants (both domestic and foreign), establish standards for food processing facilities that insure safety, conduct more border inspection (less than 1 percent of imported food is currently inspected). Congress should also give FDA mandatory recall authority and require disclosure of the stores that get recalled products so the FDA and public can act quickly in a situation where there is a potential hazard.
“The FDA needs to be much more effective in enforcing food safety standards,” added Halloran. “We are in a global economy, with tomatoes from Mexico and fish from China for sale on a daily basis in our supermarkets,” said Halloran. “The FDA needs to be upgraded and modernized to meet these challenges.”
For a copy of the complete testimony, click here and for the latest information on safety issues, see http://blogs.consumerreports.org/safety/.
Jennifer Fuson, (202) 462-6262