More than 1,000 people in 41 states and the District of Columbia have now been sickened in the nation's salmonella outbreak, in what officials said Wednesday was the largest food-borne outbreak in the last decade. And some food safety experts this week tied problems in tracing the source of the contamination to what they say are shortcomings in the Bioterrorism Act of 2002.
Federal investigators have now linked at least some of the outbreak to fresh jalapenos, Dr. Robert Tauxe of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, though they have not ruled out tomatoes.
But officials have still not pinpointed the source of the contamination. Nor do they know the country or state where the tainted produce was grown, despite a rule issued by the Food and Drug Administration under the bioterrorism law that was intended to give federal officials a way to respond immediately to threats to the nation's food supply.
The rule requires importers, processors and distributors to keep track of where they buy produce and where it goes. A major hurdle facing investigators in this outbreak, however, is that processors frequently repack boxes of tomatoes to meet a buyer's demands. In doing so, officials said, they are not required to record the tomatoes' farm, state or even country of origin.
"The purpose of the recordkeeping provision of the Bioterrorism Act was to support going back to the origin of food after people have gotten sick when you are trying to find out how the biological agent got there," said Michael Taylor, a professor at the George Washington University and a former FDA official. "But the provisions are of little or no value with respect to trace-backs of fresh produce because of the amount of shoe leather and time it would take."
The rule requires only that produce handlers keep track of food one step back and one step forward in the supply chain and does not apply to retailers or growers. Because the rule does not specify the format for records, investigators are sifting through a hodgepodge of paper trails to identify the source of the contaminated produce.
"It's clear that the FDA is not equipped to deal with a trace-back of the magnitude that they are dealing with right now," said Mike Doyle, director of the center for food safety at the University of Georgia.
Several lawmakers and consumer advocates are calling for a system that requires the industry to track the entire history of food products. Some groups, like the Produce Marketing Association, said they would support national regulation.
Dr. David Acheson, the agency's associate commissioner for foods, said Monday that the FDA lacked authority to require full trace-back capability, adding, "It's the industry's responsibility to put that kind of system in place, not ours."
But Dr. David A. Kessler, the FDA commissioner under the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton, said the agency has the authority to require the industry to trace produce from "farm to table," but has lacked "the impetus" to do so.