House Panel Grills FDA On Salmonella Probe

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Congress wants to know who is to blame for the lag time between the onset of the latest salmonella outbreak and the identification of the suspected peppers. Some House members say the FDA was slow. The agency says it was a very complicated outbreak.


People are still getting sick in a salmonella outbreak that began at the end of May, though the epidemic has slowed considerably. In two committee hearings this week, members of Congress have been trying to figure out why it's taking so long to stop it. NPR's Joanne Silberner has more.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Government officials initially blamed tomatoes for the outbreak, which has so far sickened at least 1,300 people. This week, official sourced the bacteria to Serrano and jalapeño peppers from Mexico.

At yesterday's hearing Congressman John Dingell said he thought the Food and Drug Administration could have reached a conclusion much more quickly.

JOHN DINGELL: While the FDA was ultimately able to trace commodities associated with this outbreak, the process was slow and cumbersome. What should have taken hours or days has taken months or more.

SILBERNER: Other congress members complained about a lack of communication between federal and state agencies and a failure to tap industry for help. but FDA food czar David Atchison testified that the challenge may be the bacterium itself.

DAVID ATCHISON: There's no question that the Salmonella St. Paul outbreak investigation has been one of the most complex in recent memory.

SILBERNER: It can take as much as 16 days before someone who's eaten a contaminated food gets sick and the bacterium is identified. Lonnie King of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pointed out another problem.

LONNIE KING: People have difficulty remembering exactly what foods they ate.

SILBERNER: The culprit food is likely not to be around to be tested. It may have been mixed with other foods like tomatoes and peppers. Vegetables don't go directly from the field to the store, and records aren't always computerized.

While the FDA's Atchison admitted his agency could use more resources, he says the system didn't fail.

ATCHISON: It is what it is, and it worked, it was just slow.

SILBERNER: Meanwhile, the FDA is saying no Salmonella St. Paul has been found on fresh tomatoes. They're okay. Raw Serrano and jalapeño peppers from Mexico are not. Joanne Silberner, NPR News, Washington.

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