July 30, 2008

Following a Food Trail Not so Easy

By Marty Meitus

Try to remember everything you ate in the last three days.

Not easy, is it?

Imagine trying to gather that information from people all over the country. That's just one of the issues the Food and Drug Administration was up against in tracking down the cause of the salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, first reported in early June.

First, tomatoes were indicted, and last week the FDA found a match for the bacteria - in a single jalapeno pepper, grown in Mexico and handled by a small Texas produce distributor. As of late Friday, the FDA issued a warning to avoid raw, Mexican-grown jalapeno peppers and, if you're at high risk, to avoid raw serrano peppers from Mexico as well.

After the initial announcement, supermarkets and res- taurants began pulling produce from shelves and kitchens. As for tomatoes, well, if there were any that were contaminated, they've long been gone from the shelves.

The FDA is taking a lot of the fall for this latest massive food- contamination outbreak, one that seems to have gone 'round and 'round since early June and one that left the tomato industry in a stew. But tracing a pathogen isn't easy, no matter how glamorous those CSI-types make it look, says Devin Koontz, public-affairs specialist for the Denver district of the FDA.

In the first place, people who have symptoms of salmonella may recover too quickly to ever get to a doctor. In the second place, if they do go, the doctor may or may not test for the illness. And in the third place, if it is identified, a health inspector has to find out somewhat anecdotally what they ate in the 72 hours before they became ill. And if I ate a pint of strawberry ice cream in one sitting, I might just want to keep it to myself - even in a strawberry epidemic.

"We get all these reports of what people said they ate, and we have to look for similarities: What did all these people eat that we can analyze?" Koontz says. "You can't analyze everything in their refrigerator."

Once the pepper was identified - a moment similar to "winning the lottery," says Koontz - regulators were able to pursue how it got into the food supply. And therein lies another of the problems that many lawmakers would like to fix: the circuitous route from farm to table.

Take the case of the pepper. Once the farmer brings his produce to the distribution center, it might end up repackaged by any number of vendors under any number of labels, making the source difficult to trace. The FDA has announced a new initiative to share some of the responsibilities of preventing an outbreak. The Food Protection Plan has outlined improvements that don't require congressional action, as well as some that do, such as additional authority for mandatory recalls when voluntary recalls aren't working.

But the government agencies can't go it alone. Sure, "more resources would help," Koontz says. "Even the equipment they use on CSI - we don't have that stuff."

At the end of the day, though, it's up to consumers to take the extra time to wash and cook food properly.

"We can't make food outbreaks go away by ourselves," Koontz says. "Industries and consumers have a bit of a role to play, too."

He refers to a comparison he heard recently.

"When Grandma made spinach, she would wash it five times, and maybe saute it. We want to take it out of the bag with the croutons and the dressing, pour it in a bowl and eat it, bang."

Originally published by Marty Meitus, Rocky Mountain News.

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