Lengthy Process in FDA Recall of Tomatoes

Last week, federal officials were bombarded with questions about an outbreak of potentially deadly salmonella poisoning from tomatoes.

How many people are affected? Where were these tomatoes grown? When will it be safe to eat them again?

On Wednesday, however, federal officials held a media briefing to address one particular matter: Why did it take so long to address these issues?

Calling it "the anatomy of an outbreak," Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for foods, and Dr. Ian Williams, chief of the CDC's OutbreakNet Team, explained how food recalls — this one, in particular — work.

First of all, they said, it can take two to three weeks from the time a person consumes a food until health officials determine there is a problem.

That's because it may take a few days before a victim shows any symptoms. If the person visits a doctor and the doctor takes samples, the specimens will be sent to a laboratory for testing. In this case, it was Saintpaul salmonellosis, a relatively rare strain of the salmonella bacterium.

FDA looks for growers

After salmonella is detected, the sample is given to local and state health departments for genetic typing and then entered into a CDC database.

"As that happens repeatedly in different places, you start to, as in this case, see patterns emerging of common genetic types," Acheson said. "At that stage, there will be recognition that there's an outbreak going on."

The CDC discovered on May 23 that there were genetic matches in several states, most noticeably in Texas, Williams said.

A case study was launched that eventually determined that the people all had eaten uncooked tomatoes that could have been in salads, fresh salsa, guacamole, pico de gallo and other dishes. Many of those tomatoes were consumed in April, officials said.

On May 30, the FDA got involved. Its mission: Find out where the tomatoes were grown. Acheson said the procedure is complex for tomatoes because they typically do not have a bar code.

"When you have a food item that's in a packet or in a can ... and that can has a UPC code or a bar code or a lot number, then the trace-back is relatively quick and easy because you know who manufactured it and they keep records linked to lot numbers and UPC codes," Acheson said.

So far, officials have not determined where the offending tomatoes were grown. However, they have ruled out some areas as tomatoes were not being harvested at the time of the apparent outbreak. They also know that only certain types of the fruit are involved: red plum, red Roma and round red tomatoes.

As of Friday, 228 salmonella cases had been reported in 16 states, including Texas. At least 25 people had been hospitalized. Houston health officials confirmed that a cancer patient who died had contracted Saintpaul salmonellosis, but said the poisoning was only a contributing factor to his cancer-related death.

In addition to the CDC, the FDA also hears about problem products from companies themselves, agency inspections and reports from other health departments.

Food items are not the only things recalled by the federal government.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission handles recalls of items such as toys, tools, appliances and clothing, among other things.

CPSC spokeswoman Patty Davis said the agency finds out about dangerous products from consumers, companies and its investigators. If products don't comply with safety standards, she said, the commission works with the manufacturers to get a recall in place. That can take from a few hours to a month, she said.

"Mandatory standards are in place for a reason," she said. "They are there to protect consumers. And we take our responsibility to enforce those standards very seriously."

The federal agencies are not without their critics. Consumer groups have complained that the CPSC is too close to the industry that it regulates. The FDA and the CPSC also are considered underfunded by consumer advocates and some members of Congress.

Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, said the FDA needs mandatory recall authority as well as additional funding.

"They are responsible for a large portion of all the food we eat," Waldrop said, "and they have been drastically underfunded over the past 10 years. They are a very weakened agency."