Salmonella Outbreaks Hard To Source

Over the past several months an outbreak of salmonella has sickened hundreds and sparked an investigation in to its origin. Tomatoes are thought to be the culprit, but tracing bacteria back to its source is difficult. Inspection alone will not solve the problem, former deputy commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration, Michael Taylor tells Linda Werthheimer.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

For the last three months, tomatoes were the suspected source of a salmonella outbreak that had sickened hundreds. But yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the culprit could be jalapeno peppers which are often used with tomatoes. Whatever the source, preventing salmonella is a huge challenge. Michael Taylor joined us in the studio before the Journal's report came out. He is a former deputy commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration, and a former administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I know you are not a scientist. But could I just ask you, how would salmonella get into a tomato?

Professor MICHAEL TAYLOR (Health Policy, George Washington University): Well, there are any number of points in the process of growing and processing tomatoes where this can occur. It can happen right on the farm. It's very hard to generalize.

WERTHEIMER: Is that why it's taking so long to figure out what caused this outbreak?

Prof. TAYLOR: It's a very difficult thing to figure out, the cause of an outbreak of illness, particularly for fresh produce. You know, if you could go into the home of someone who was sick and find the bag of tomatoes from which they ate, and sample and test that tomato and link that to the strain of bacteria that made the people sick, it would be easy. But those tomatoes are gone by the time a case is reported, and so we've got inherently uncertain scientific tools that we're relying on.

WERTHEIMER: And you'd trace the outbreak by starting with the victims and trying to work backwards?

Prof. TAYLOR: Exactly. We can begin to link cases together using some really good, new tools to link cases of illness to potential common causes. But then finding out what that cause is, that's the difficult part of the process.

WERTHEIMER: The estimates of how much this has cost the tomato industry range from 250 to 450 million dollars. How much does that weigh on regulators' minds when they launch an investigation, knowing that most of the people who will be hurt were completely innocent of doing anything bad?

Prof. TAYLOR: Well, this puts the Food and Drug Administration and CDC in a very difficult position because they believe they know, or have good evidence to suggest, that a particular food is a cause of illness. They need to alert the food industries so they could contain that. It's a classic public health dilemma where there's always uncertainty in the information. You need to alert the public at some appropriate point, and that has impact, economically. To their credit, the agencies tilt towards preventing illness.

WERTHEIMER: So whose responsibility is it really? Is it the government, or is it the producer?

Prof. TAYLOR: There's a shared responsibility. I think the first responsibility does rest with the producers, the people who are in the food industry. There's a long-standing, and I think fundamentally necessary, role of government, of course, to set standards, to provide that independent check, to inspect and enforce standards that are effective in preventing these illnesses. To see to it that all producers are observing what we know to be the best practices for preventing these kinds of problems.

WERTHEIMER: Yeah, but producers are not necessarily in the United States of America where you can reach them. Fruits like tomatoes are produced everywhere and shipped here.

Prof. TAYLOR: The FDA inspects about one percent of what's coming in. It's actually able to test only a fraction of that. And so the importer should be responsible for assuring that product produced overseas is produced in accordance with the U.S. standards. There should be a requirement that a foreign producer has the same preventive control system that we need to begin requiring here in the United States.

WERTHEIMER: Let me just ask you how safe do you think the food system is? How often would you get around to take a look at an American food producer's plant, and say they're doing everything they should?

Prof. TAYLOR: Currently, the FDA's inspection frequency is very, very low. I mean, you hear on the average of once every 10 years. But inspection alone will never solve the problem. The industry has to have an enforceable legal duty to have in place state-of-the-art preventive systems to minimize the risk of illness.

WERTHEIMER: And that's not true now?

Prof. TAYLOR: No, it's not true now.

WERTHEIMER: Michael Taylor is a professor of Health Policy at the George Washington University. Thank you very much for coming in.

Prof. TAYLOR: Thank you. Glad to be here.

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