WASHINGTON — Farm officials from Florida and California told a congressional panel Thursday that the investigation into the nation's largest salmonella outbreak was stymied by the FDA's unwillingness to share information, tap industry expertise or consider that something other than tomatoes might be the culprit, unfairly costing them millions of dollars.
Growers and packers from those two states, which produce about 70 percent of the nation's fresh tomatoes, also joined the president of the nation's leading produce association in urging Congress to require "field to fork" tracking of tomatoes.
They argued this would help restore consumer confidence and allow officials to determine more quickly whether tomatoes are involved in future outbreaks.
"We share the same interest in producing the safest tomatoes for consumers," said Reginald L. Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange in Maitland.
Ed Beckman, president of California Tomato Farmers, added, "Our very real concern is that this might happen again, and we again will see a prolonged investigation that will further weaken confidence."
Members of the oversight and investigations arm of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose jurisdiction includes the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shared frustration over how the agencies handled the outbreak. More than 1,300 people, primarily in Texas and New Mexico, fell sick from April to mid July.
The lawmakers were particularly critical of the FDA and CDC for continuing to focus on tomatoes even as test after test found no trace of the salmonella Saintpaul responsible for the illnesses. Investigators recently found the salmonella strain in peppers from Mexico.
Rep. Diane DeGette, D-Colo., brandished a sheaf of papers showing that even after federal officials suspected the main culprit was salsa, a CDC questionnaire given to patients asked only about their consumption of onions and tomatoes. Federal investigators wouldn't ask about peppers until weeks later.
"Do you think we would have been better off had we focused on all the ingredients of salsa … instead of just going down the tomato road?" DeGette asked Dr. Lonnie J. King, director of CDC's center for food-borne illness. King said he'd look into it.
The FDA's June 7 warning against consuming raw tomatoes is blamed for costing Florida tomato producers at least $100-million. Losses nationally are expected to reach as high as $140-million. Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Palm Beach Gardens, has filed a bill seeking $100-million for the industry.
Only Florida and California require packers to keep close track of where their tomatoes come from and are going. But Charles H. Bronson, Florida's commissioner of agriculture, told the committee the FDA failed to use that system to help clear Florida tomatoes and didn't conduct inspections in the state until late June, after sales plummeted.
Plus, the outbreak started in New Mexico, where just over 100 people were sickened, and Texas, which reported more than 500 cases. Those aren't big markets for Florida tomatoes, Bronson said. But Florida and the Southeast, which are, reported no cases before the FDA's warning.
"We were selling tomatoes all over Florida, all over the southern United States, and we didn't have any sickness," Bronson testified. "While we have to follow scientific (procedure), we shouldn't throw away common sense."
King and Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's assistant commissioner for food protection, said that they had good reason to target tomatoes and that the system worked. ''It was just slow," Acheson said.
Agriculture officials, industry representatives and state health officials told the committee the CDC and FDA were difficult to work with, particularly when it came to sharing information. "We actually heard things on the nightly news that was more than we were given at these meetings," Bronson said.
Dr. Timothy Jones, the Tennessee state epidemiologist, said the FDA had the names and contact information for Tennesseans known to have bought a contaminated product but wouldn't give the list to state officials, citing privacy laws.
Witnesses also complained the FDA refused to let industry experts help its investigators understand the complex, seasonal distribution patterns for fresh produce, which could have cleared Florida tomatoes earlier.
Aside from pleas for more funding and staff — the number of FDA food inspectors in the field has dropped from 4,000 to 3,300 during the Bush administration — Acheson and King agreed that mandatory tracking, or traceability, would help speed future investigations.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the oversight committee, said the concerns brought up in the hearing may be addressed in a major food safety bill that House leaders hope to consider next month.
Wes Allison can be reached at [email protected] or (202) 463-0577.