by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
I love tomatoes. Home grown, store bought, on the vine, off the vine, grape and cherry tomatoes, doesn’t matter, I love them all. But over the past few months, as the Food and Drug Administration suspected tomatoes as the source of a salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,300 consumers in the United States and Canada, I’ve begun to worry that tomatoes could go the way of the Edsel. The industry has lost an estimated $250 million, with the fruit rotting on the vine. (Yes, tomatoes are a fruit!) You have to feel terrible for tomato producers as the FDA has struggled to pin down the source of the foodborne pathogen.
Tracing what fruit or vegetable is the source of an outbreak like salmonella, even with advances in technology, is still dependent on local health officials and a poor or nonexistent trace-back system. Some local health departments are better than others. In the case of tomatoes, in mid-May the FDA announced a Salmonella outbreak and focused on tomatoes alone, but it wasn’t until July 9 that FDA’s warnings were expanded to include jalapeños. A bioterrorism law passed in 2002 was supposed to set up systems to enable tracing back through the food supply to find the source of microbes like Salmonella. In this recent outbreak, however, investigators were rifling through paper invoices instead of computer records. The system is so laborious that many times investigators don’t learn what made people sick, or by the time they do, the outbreak is over. Meanwhile, when tomatoes or peppers or other foods are implicated, consumers steer clear, restaurants steer clear, and the growers and everyone in the chain of production lose millions.
Trace-back systems with identifying information on each piece of produce would help solve this problem. I’ve seen infrared technologies designed to do just that. The FDA says that three key components are needed for trace back systems to work: a unique identifier that follows each food item from field to consumer, electronic record keeping and a common framework for sharing information among all the players.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich) is working on legislation that would incorporate a tracing system, and he hopes to bring it to a floor vote this year. Dingell’s House Energy and Commerce Committee is holding a hearing today on the salmonella investigation.
And though the produce industry has resisted trace back systems because of the expense and fear that their products might receive negative attention, a quarter of a billion dollars in losses might make produce growers more receptive to change that will save them money in the long run.
Another move in the right direction is the federal law—supported by the National Consumers League—that becomes effective later this year requiring a country-of-origin label for all food, even if it’s U.S.-grown. Those labels provide an opportunity to add extra information, such as a unique tracking number. State and local heath departments need to coordinate their food safety efforts, while the federal government adds to the mix a far more accurate traceability system. This will not only protect consumers but it will protect the industries that produce the vegetables and fruits we love, like tomatoes.