June 18, 2008

FDA May Never Find Tainted Tomato Source

The head of U.S. food safety efforts says it's possible the government will never track down the source of the recent tomato salmonella outbreak.

David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration's food safety czar, says that's because fresh produce like tomatoes aren't consistently labeled as to origin, and also because the outbreak, which sickened 277 people and hospitalized 43, is so widespread, the Chicago Tribune reported Wednesday.

Acheson said that definitively pinning down where the bacteria originated may be impossible because, unlike jars of peanut butter, which were also subjects of a salmonella scare, individual tomatoes typically don't have information about their origins.

Off of that jar of peanut butter, you've got the history of that product, Acheson told the Tribune, adding that even though some U.S. growers voluntarily identify boxes of their products, tracking a suspect batch is very difficult. We have to find ways to do this better, he said.

The FDA used harvest schedules in a process of elimination to narrow down their suspicions to southern Florida or Mexico. Acheson said the FDA's best tip so far is a cluster of nine cases from the same geographical location, which he declined to name.