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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

WHEN WE wrote last month about the outbreak of the rare Saintpaul strain of salmonella bacteria, the prime suspects were Roma, red plum and red round tomatoes. Now they have company. The Food and Drug Administration is casting a wary eye on jalapeno peppers and the ingredients for salsa (cilantro and serrano peppers). If the agency had the ability to require food producers to track their products from "farm to fork," finding the source of an outbreak wouldn't be like playing pin the tail on the chipotle.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that "since April, 943 persons infected with the Saintpaul salmonella strain with the same genetic fingerprint have been identified in 40 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada." That included 29 victims each in Virginia and Maryland. There had been 130 hospitalizations and one death. That was up from the 167 people (with at least 23 hospitalized) in 17 states who had been infected as of our June 12 editorial. The CDC issued its first warning to consumers on June 5. That the federal government still doesn't know exactly where the salmonella is coming from is maddening.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) was able to get a provision into the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act of 2008 that would give the FDA the power to issue mandatory recalls of contaminated food. But she has yet to get a provision into the bill that would require the agency to devise a food tracing system. Ms. DeGette points out that the technology exists to trace food and produce from the farm to the dinner table. It's time that Congress put that technology to work to protect the food supply. Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who is shepherding the act through the House, must ensure that traceability is included in the final bill. The two provisions together would make a relatively safe food supply that much safer. We urge Congress to get this done -- before chips and beer are implicated next.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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