Editorial: Final Lesson From The 2008 Salmonella Outbreak

Last month in American Vegetable Grower’s weekly eNewsletter, we reported on a study vindicating tomatoes in the 2008 Salmonella outbreak. The study, which was released in the New England Journal of Medicine, provided “detailed evidence” linking the 2008 outbreak of Salmonella saintpaul to jalapeño and serrano peppers, not tomatoes. Scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explained how tomatoes were mistakenly charged as being the source of the foodborne illness outbreak in the early stages of the investigation.

Besides the fact that releasing this information more than two years after the incident is really “too little too late,” the tomato industry, or any commodity for that matter, can’t afford to be thrown under the bus like that ever again without hard evidence. Millions of dollars were lost by tomato growers from all over the country. The incident, which I’m sure is still fresh in the minds of many, wreaked havoc on the tomato industry.

Government officials came to a quick conclusion that tomatoes were the culprit and things snowballed from there. You all know the story. There is no need to go into the gory details again.

After the New England Journal of Medicine study came out in February, our sister publication, Florida Grower, asked its audience the following poll question: “Should some form of restitution be granted to growers for the misidentification of tomatoes as the source of the 2008 Salmonella outbreak?”

A whopping 94% said “Yes.” At the very least, it is safe to say producers of fresh produce aren’t ever again going to take an incident like this lying down, especially those in the Sunshine State.

Time For Change

In 2011, with the birth of the Food Safety Modernization Act, it is hoped that at the very least we will see an end to knee-jerk produce recalls. For those who need to catch up on what the Food Safety Modernization Act will mean to your operation, be sure to head to www.GrowingProduce.com and click on the March issue. We’ve covered everything from commodity-specific food safety plans to those who are exempt under the Tester amendment.

The bottom line with the new food safety law, however, is that the focus needs to be on doing what it takes to reduce the likelihood of a foodborne illness outbreak in the first place, and that using sound science will need to reign supreme.

Headed In The Right Direction

The good news is that we may be on the right track. Recently, the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California-Davis joined with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to host a “produce safety tour” in Florida.

The goal was to provide federal agencies, which included folks from FDA and USDA and state food safety regulators, with first-hand information on how fresh produce is grown, packed, and handled. Tours were held at 15 operations and covered a variety of commodities including strawberries, tomatoes, lettuce, and leafy greens. The tours included operations from one extreme to the other: facilities with state-of-the-art traceability and food safety systems all the way to a large market where traceability would be a very difficult task to execute.

In essence, it is all about learning. The people in government agencies who are in the position of looking after the safety of our food supply need to understand the intricacies of how food is grown, packed, and shipped in order to do their jobs.

It is our job to make sure they get the education they need.

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