TOPICS > Health

FDA Expands Search for Source of Salmonella Outbreak

July 2, 2008 at 5:25 PM EDT
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday that it still did not know the source of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened 869 people and plans to expand its search beyond tomatoes, the first suspected culprit. A USA Today reporter updates the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The search has gone on for more than a month, but health officials have still not identified the cause of a sweeping salmonella outbreak linked to produce. The main focus has been on several types of commonly eaten tomatoes.

More than 800 people in 36 states and the District of Columbia have fallen ill since late April when the problem was first detected; 179 people became ill in the last month alone.

Teams of government inspectors have been deployed to tomato-growing regions, like Florida and Mexico. Laboratory testing of some 1,700 domestic and imported samples of primarily tomatoes have all come back negative, but investigators have not yet taken tomatoes off the table.

DR. DAVID ACHESON, Associate Commissioner for Foods: I want to repeat: Tomatoes are still the lead suspect and are a major focus. They are still being investigated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: However, the Food and Drug Administration is now expanding the search to other produce. The prolonged mystery surrounding the source of so many illnesses is hurting the produce industry, which has lost more than $100 million thus far.

TOM DEARDORFF, Tomato Farmer: Really angry, really frustrated. Obviously, we just wish that the FDA and CDC would get together and get this problem over with. There’s going to be tomatoes in the field that go overripe, that go unharvested.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the meantime, consumers are urged to avoid raw red plum, red Roma, or red round tomatoes, unless they were grown in specific states or countries that the FDA has cleared of suspicion.

For more about this investigation, we turn again to Elizabeth Weise. She covers food safety for USA Today, and she joins us now from San Francisco.

Other produce may be at fault

JUDY WOODRUFF: Elizabeth Weise, thank you for talking with us again today. The FDA has been telling the public for weeks to avoid certain types of tomatoes, but now they're saying they're not sure it's tomatoes. What happened?

ELIZABETH WEISE, USA Today: Well, this just goes back to the whole problem of doing epidemiological investigations. You start with what you think it is. FDA had a pretty good sense, together with CDC, that it was tomatoes.

But as the infections kept coming and people kept getting sick, even after FDA launched an enormous -- and not a recall, but an enormous effort to get people to stop eating the tomatoes that they thought were the culprits, and people still kept getting sick.

And at that point, as scientists, they kind of looked at it and said, "Hmm, maybe we need to go back to the drawing board and rethink what we think might be behind this."

JUDY WOODRUFF: So if it's not tomatoes, what else could it be? What else are they looking at?

ELIZABETH WEISE: Well, it's a little unclear at this point. One of the things that FDA and CDC have noted is that the vast preponderance of the cases are in the Southwest.

They know that it's got to be something that is typically eaten together with fresh tomatoes, because the people who are getting sick, they've eaten fresh tomatoes. They just can't figure out why they haven't been able to trace it back in tomatoes.

So if it is something that's eaten with fresh tomatoes, you can start to kind of think of the constellation of things that are likely to show up with fresh tomatoes.

They haven't indicated that it's salad, so we're thinking it's not salads. Certainly, in a press conference yesterday, FDA and CDC both mentioned the possibility it's a salsa but pico de gallo, but, again, they're not convinced. They don't know for certain.

But what they do know is they needed to broaden the investigation so they could find out for sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So to be specific, what else could it be, when you talk about salsa? I mean, what other produce could it be?

ELIZABETH WEISE: It's got to be something -- the CDC and FDA have been very clear: It's got to be something that is typically consumed together with fresh tomatoes.

And they're being very careful not to name what that is, because any time you do an epidemiological survey, you don't want to taint the field by suggesting it's one thing, and then the people you talk to are going to say, "Oh, yes, it's that."

Other people that I've talked to in kind of the food safety world start talking about, well, you know, there's green tomatoes; there's white tomatoes; there's cilantro; there's peppers, things that might be in kind of this universe of things that we typically eat together with tomatoes. But we don't know for certain right now.

Challenges to the investigation

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it possible that they've narrowed it down even further, but they're just not able to say publicly yet?

ELIZABETH WEISE: It's very possible. One of the things when you do epidemiology is you keep focusing in on, "OK, we have this sense. Let's go interview a bunch more people and see if we can get a better sense."

It's very easy -- the problem is it's easy to get false positives, but it's very possible that out in the field they're starting to get anecdotal evidence, and they have a sense, but they can't really -- they can't say publicly yet, because if you said the wrong thing and you devastated a whole other industry and it turned out you were wrong, that would not be good, either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Help us understand why this is so hard. Why is this taking so long?

ELIZABETH WEISE: You know, when I talk to people who are working at state health departments and county health departments, you've got to remember, when you do this kind of investigation, what you're doing is you're calling someone who is sick as a dog, and you've called them once, and you've sent a nurse out, and sat down with them, and run through a survey that can run 22 pages.

These surveys can take up to an hour, an hour-and-a-half, where they're basically going through everything you conceivably could have eaten in the last month. And it's kind of a grueling process.

So they did that. They got tomatoes. Now they've had to go back and say, "Huh, tomatoes?" It's not only tomatoes; perhaps it's something else. So they have to go back to those same people, some of whom have been interviewed two or three times already, and called them once again, and say, "We're so sorry to bother you, but let's go over that huge, long survey one more time."

And, I mean, some people that I've talked to have said, "Yes, you know, we're getting a lot of hang-ups, because people just don't want to do it again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do they have the equipment, the research, do they have the staff that they need to get this done as quickly as it needs to be done?

ELIZABETH WEISE: Well, that's certainly one of the things that people in the food safety world have talked about a lot, that FDA, its funding has perhaps not kept pace with the job that they're being required to do.

There have been a lot of calls on the part of food safety experts, people in academia, saying, "We've got to fund FDA. FDA needs to have a bigger staff. It needs to have more people on the ground."

Just yesterday, they implemented the food emergency response network, which is where CDC and FDA go beyond the federal labs that they have, and they pull in up to 100 other labs, usually at state and county level, to kind of compound the number of people they've got looking at the problem. And they have to do that, because clearly they don't have that many people on the ground.

Tomato farmers grow concerned

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, Elizabeth Weise, we know tomato-growers are very unhappy about this, because it is taking so long. What are they saying?

ELIZABETH WEISE: You know, I've been talking to some of the growers, Western growers today. The tomato industry in this country I think was about $2.3 billion market last year. They're very concerned; they've lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

And a huge concern to them is, if you think back to what happened with spinach and E. coli two years ago, 10 percent of the people who used to eat spinach have stopped eating spinach, even though the E. coli is out of the spinach. It hasn't been there for a year-and-a-half. People don't eat spinach anymore.

The tomato-growers are concerned that they're going to lose market share not just now, but in the future. They are especially -- if it does turn out not to be tomatoes -- they're starting to talk about, well, what can we do that's going to provide us relief? Could we have congressional relief?

They can't really sue, because you can't sue the federal government, in this instance, because they didn't act in bad faith. So they're starting to think about, what can we do to try, as one of the growers put it, make us whole again?

JUDY WOODRUFF: But in the meantime, just a quick reminder to consumers, they're saying it's still not safe to eat plum tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, and those red round?

ELIZABETH WEISE: Exactly. FDA has been very clear on that point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Elizabeth Weise with USA Today, thank you.

ELIZABETH WEISE: Thank you so much.