FDA Finds Salmonella Strain on Jalapeno Pepper

Statement of CSPI Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal

July 21, 2008

More than 1,200 Americans have gotten sick and two people have died after eating produce contaminated with Salmonella Saintpaul. With an investigation spanning many weeks, food safety regulators have had a challenging time trying to track suspected tomatoes and peppers up or down the supply chain, hampered by paper records and repacking practices that effectively hide the identity of produce in the distribution chain.

Today FDA announced an important breakthrough in the case: A Jalapeno pepper from a Mexican farm -- repacked at a Texas distribution facility -- has been found with the identical strain fingerprint of Salmonella as the human victims.

Though we still do not know where or how the contamination occurred, what we do know is traceability tools that Congress adopted in the 2002 Bioterrorism Act were significantly watered down by the Bush Administration. In fact, in 2003, food industry lobbyists had special behind-closed-doors access when the Bush Administration was vetting new anti-bioterrorism regulations aimed at protecting the food supply from intentional contamination. Provisions stripped from the regulations, like requirements for distributors to record lot or code numbers, and requirements for record availability in 4 to 8 hours, might have been helpful nailing down this Salmonella outbreak much earlier.

At the time, the industry complained that strong provisions were overly burdensome, and the Administration watered down the regulations in response. Those complaints must seem quaint compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars this one outbreak has cost American growers, processors, and retailers.

Itís time for Congress to step in and enact meaningful FDA reform legislation. Though time is short, Congress should act before another outbreak occurs to give FDA strong traceback authority, mandatory process control systems all the way back to the farm, and mandatory recall. The Bush Administration has consistently failed to put public health ahead of the complaints of industry lobbyists. Congress should not wait for more evidence that the agency doesnít have the tools it needs.


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