Rotten Tomatoes

Thursday, June 12, 2008

WHEN HIGH levels of E. coli bacteria turned spinach into a mealtime menace in 2006, we agreed with calls to give the Food and Drug Administration the power to issue mandatory recalls of tainted produce. We also supported the smart idea to require the FDA and other agencies with responsibility over food safety to institute a tracing system so that the next outbreak of tainted food could be contained in days, not weeks. Well, the next outbreak is upon us. And neither good idea has been implemented.

The latest outbreak involves the rare Saintpaul strain of salmonella bacteria in Roma, red plum and red round tomatoes. Don't worry about homegrown, cherry and grape tomatoes or those attached to the vine. The FDA says they are safe. What should make us all worry is the disturbing timeline. Since mid-April, 167 people in 17 states, including Virginia, have been infected with Salmonella saintpaul. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of Monday, "At least 23 people were hospitalized. No deaths have been reported." A search for the source of the outbreak has been underway since last month after Texas and New Mexico reported cases. The CDC issued its first warning to consumers on June 5. Stores and restaurants across the country have been pulling tomatoes from their shelves and menus voluntarily since the weekend. Relying on the consciences of folks worried about the bottom line or their corporate reputations is not ideal.

Nestled within the Food Safety Act of 2007 under consideration in the House is a provision sponsored by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) that would give the Agriculture Department and the FDA the power to issue a mandatory recall of contaminated food. This is more than reasonable, since the federal government can and did recall lead-tainted toys imported from China last year. Besides, the hammer of potential government action would be a powerful incentive for growers and packers to conform to safety standards.

What's missing from the act is another provision pushed by Ms. DeGette that would require that food producers track their products from "farm to fork." Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who is shepherding the act through the House, should include the tracking provision as part of the package -- and then get the legislation passed. This and the power to recall are two tools that would make it easier to protect the nation's food supply and find the source of tainted meat and vegetables the moment an outbreak occurs -- not months and many victims later.

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