WASHINGTON – The government bungled the salmonella outbreak probe so badly, a House committee chairman said Thursday, that federal investigators reminded him of Keystone Kops. A colleague hoped the maligned tomato can get its good name back.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee conducted its own investigation of the Food and Drug Administration's investigation of the salmonella scare. The outbreak has sickened more than 1,300 people this summer and set off a consumer scare that cost the produce industry more than $200 million.
One agency probably zeroed in on tomatoes too early, the committee concluded, while a second failed to tap industry expertise in trying to trace the source of the contamination.
To the chairman, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the case reminded him of "a Keystone Kops situation." An investigation that should have taken hours or days instead has stretched on for weeks and months, he said.
Federal investigators are now focused on hot peppers from Mexico — jalapenos and serranos. They still suspect that tainted tomatoes were involved at first, but they may never be able to prove it.
Holding up a bright red tomato, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., declared: "We want their good name back."
Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA, which share responsibility for handling outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, found themselves on the defensive at the hearing.
Several lawmakers said the fact that no single agency is in charge may be part of the problem. The CDC is responsible for identifying the pathogen and the type of food that has been contaminated; the FDA is supposed to trace the outbreak to its source.
The FDA's food safety chief, Dr. David Acheson, said the agency plans to convene a panel of advisers to review the salmonella investigation. A faster system for tracing suspect produce might have allowed the FDA to clear tomatoes more rapidly, he said. While many major companies can trace their suppliers within hours, most smaller growers and shippers still rely on paper records.
The system "is what it is, and it worked," Acheson said. "It was just slow."
Lonnie King, head of the CDC's center for foodborne illnesses, said that his agency's statistical analysis of detailed interviews with people who got sick found a very strong link to tomatoes.
But Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., pointed out that exhaustive questionnaires used in those interviews failed to ask whether patients had eaten freshly prepared salsa, which might have put investigators on the trail of peppers earlier on.
King acknowledged that such information might have taken the investigation down a different road. "I'd certainly go back and review that," he said.
Industry representatives told lawmakers they were frustrated with the government's investigation. They said they could have helped the government clear U.S.-grown tomatoes quickly, but were kept at arm's length.
Thomas Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, suggested that public health officials might want to tap outside sources.
"We're not asking to run the investigation, but there's an abundance of knowledge in the industry that can help protect public health," he said.
Separately, the FDA rejected the Mexican government's assertion that U.S. investigators had erred in identifying irrigation water at a Mexican pepper farm as a possible source of contamination. Mexican authorities said Thursday the sample their U.S. counterparts called "a smoking gun" came from a tank that had not been used to irrigate crops for more than two months.
"We are surprised and disappointed by the statements of the Mexican government," the FDA said in a statement. "We are confident of our findings."