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Tracking Source of Salmonella
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Tracking Source of Salmonella

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Tracking Source of Salmonella

Tracking Source of Salmonella
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The continuing outbreak of salmonella from tomatoes has now caused more than 200 infections. David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration's food safety czar, discusses the challenges that come with tracking down the source of the outbreak. Melissa Block talks to Acheson.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Tomatoes are back on the menus of many restaurants now that some tomato crops in growing regions have been identified it safe. But there're also several new cases of salmonella poisoning reported today. The New York City health department confirmed six more cases that might be linked to tomatoes. There're more than 270 salmonella cases now in 28 states.

BLOCK: David Acheson is in charge of tracking the salmonella outbreak for the Food and Drug Administration. He told us the FDA has narrowed the likely culprits to raw red plum, red Roma or round red tomatoes grown in Florida or Mexico. That means there still a lot of investigation to do.

DAVID ACHESON: I believe we're getting closer. As each day goes by, we get a little bit more hard because there are so many different arms and legs to, to tomato supply chains. I want to raise certainly the possibility that we may not identify a farm where this happened.

BLOCK: You think it's possible there will be no, no definitive answer here?

ACHESON: It is possible that there will be no definitive answer from this. Tomatoes are so complicated. They obviously have a finite shelf life. So we may never get back to the - to the farm, if that's where the problem happened.

BLOCK: Let's explain the tomato forensics here. Once you know that you have an outbreak of the same strain of salmonella, how do you begin running it back and where does that take you?

ACHESON: It begins with talking to a patient who got sick from consuming tomatoes. And you ask them the simple question, where did you buy your tomatoes and when did you buy them? That then triggers a visit to the local supermarket or the store that they bought them from. Or if they out at the restaurant and you ask the same question: where did you buy your tomatoes from in the time frame that we're talking about? That usually results in the answer, well, we want to make sure that we always have tomatoes so we may have gotten them from any one of these three or four suppliers in that time frame. And that will take you to - back to each supplier. And each one of those suppliers often get them from two or three distributors.

BLOCK: So the web is widening with every step that you're taking?

ACHESON: Exactly. You go back to a distributor and you say, well, where do you get your tomatoes from? And they say, well, in this time frame we usually get them from these four growers. So as you point out, the web widens.

BLOCK: There has been, as you know, criticism from Congress and from consumer groups that say the FDA has been dragging its feet on developing a food protection plan and now we see nearly 300 people at least sickened with this salmonella outbreak. How do you respond to those criticisms? Is the FDA moving too slowly?

ACHESON: You know, I think there has been a lot of criticism about FDA's ability to get our arms around not just this, this issue but food safety in general. The agency has recognized that it's time for change and it's time for a new approach. And to that end, last November FDA published a Strategic Vision Food Protection Plan with a much greater focus on prevention plus (unintelligible) inspections and more rapid response. But we're being criticized right now for why haven't we fixed this problem in the six months since the food protection plan has come out.

And part of the answer to that is it takes a lot of planning, it's going to take new legislative authorities which we don't yet have. It's going to take new resources which we don't yet have. But in the interim, what we are doing is focusing on some of the critical areas that need to change. Frankly, we're going to need three to five years before we can really start to see differences. It just doesn't turn overnight.

BLOCK: Dr. Acheson, what's your advice to tomato lovers? If you, if you walk into your grocery store and you see now a round, ripe, red tomato on the shelf or if you go into one of the, say, fast food chains that are putting them back on the menu...

ACHESON: Yeah.

BLOCK: ...assume it's safe, go ahead buy it, go ahead and eat it? Or wait a little longer, until you figure out what the source of the outbreak was?

ACHESON: If you go into one of those stores and there isn't a label up that says these tomatoes are from one of the exclusion places; if it doesn't say that, ask. And if the consumer asks and they don't know, I as a consumer would be saying, well, I'm not sure I want to take the risk. So I think it's an important message that retailers get: know where the tomatoes have come from and be ready, willing and able to communicate that information to consumers. They want to know.

BLOCK: Well, Dr. Acheson, good to talk to you. Thanks very much.

ACHESON: Great pleasure, thank you.

BLOCK: David Acheson is the associate commissioner for foods with the Food and Drug Administration.

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