Salmonella Scare Shows Flaws in Food Safety

By April Fulton
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Peak local tomato season is upon us, and thankfully, the government has removed tomatoes from the prime-suspect list in the salmonella outbreak this spring. But the three-month investigation left much consumer confusion in its wake.

As some see it, the problem is panic. "When people get afraid, they don't eat the food, they throw out perfectly good food, farms go bankrupt and producers lay off workers," says Jim Prevor, a food industry magazine founder, frequent food safety commentator and author of the blog "Perishable Pundit."

Ann Yonkers, co-founder of FreshFarm Markets, which operates eight farmers markets in the Washington area, agrees. "It's been a tragedy for tomato growers, particularly in the South and the Carolinas," she says.

Although millions of Southern tomatoes were held up for testing, Washington area field tomatoes were not yet being harvested when the government started noting a pattern of illness in April. Still, consumers might be skittish. "The scientists don't have all the answers," Yonkers says.

Jim Frazee of Twin Springs Fruit Farm in Ortanna, Pa., who sells tomatoes and other produce at area markets, said that when the salmonella story broke, he considered sending an e-mail to reassure customers. He decided against it, concerned that it might fan their fears.

"Turns out we guessed right. Our tomatoes have been selling at least as quickly as in years past," he says.

At D and S Farm in St. Mary's County, Sue Gragan says her greenhouse tomato sales have actually increased over last year's. She sells varieties including beefsteak and Mr. Ugly at six markets in the area. "The big question people ask is, 'Are they local?,' and we say yes," she says.

The salmonella outbreak initially ascribed to tomatoes and eventually traced to peppers on a Mexican farm has led to renewed questions about the safety of the food supply. More than 1,000 people nationwide reported an illness attributed to the culprit, a particularly rare strain known as Salmonella saintpaul.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which studies the causes and transmission of foodborne illnesses and communicates risk to the public, estimates that 76 million Americans get sick each year from a virus, bacteria, parasite, toxin, metal or infectious protein in their food, and 5,000 of them die.

It sounds scary. However, for healthy people, most bouts with foodborne illness involve an upset stomach and diarrhea. Many incidents are never reported because they are mild or the victim does not link the illness to food.

In the United States, "there are 350 million people eating several times a day," says Marion Nestle, author of several books on food politics, including 2006's "What to Eat." Statistically, then, the risk of becoming a victim is quite small. "But if you're one of those people, it's not very nice."

So what do you do? You can never be absolutely sure the food you buy is safe, but one way to gain confidence is to ask questions about how your food is grown and handled.

Yonkers, naturally, says it's safer to buy products at a farmers market.

"They are produced on a small farm, the farmer is living on the same farm and is eating the same product. At the farmers market, you don't have to rely on the label; you can talk to the farmer," she says. "That's a big advantage."

But Prevor notes that larger producers have more safety checks than small farmers, and he says major buyers such as chain restaurants are likely to catch problems quickly because they conduct testing.

Nestle and Prevor agree that cooking kills most pathogens that could cause illness.

Experts say produce should be washed thoroughly in water, especially if it is to be consumed raw, and should be kept separate from raw meats and poultry so there is less chance of cross-contamination.

Why did the government take so long to discover the source of the recent outbreak? Part of the reason might stem from the way the produce was processed and sold. Several farms take tomatoes and peppers to large packing plants, where they are mingled, sorted by size and color, and boxed for shipping. Then they are sold loose in the store, so consumers who get sick don't have the original packaging.

The spinach contamination of 2006, by contrast, was easier to track because "the spinach was in bags, and people still had the bags around," Nestle says. "Some of them tested positive for the toxic E. coli."

The food safety system in the United States is often touted as the best in the world, and food producers have developed sophisticated methods to detect and destroy pathogens, but more than a dozen agencies play an oversight role, and the divisions aren't clear. The Food and Drug Administration regulates cheese pizza, for instance, while pepperoni pizza is governed by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

To Nestle, that's a problem. As our food system continues to expand globally and more middlemen are involved in transporting food products, the risk of illness grows. "What probably would have to happen is that a very, very powerful member of Congress would have to have a particularly bad incident in his immediate family to get action," Nestle says.

Prevor suggests that next time, the agencies should put out more information electronically and let experts from around the world help work on it: a Wikipedia sort of approach.

Until then, when buying produce, consider your odds, ask questions and wash it before you eat it.

April Fulton blogs at http://www.thefoodscribe.com.

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