The United States has spent billions of dollars since 9/11 to protect the nation from another terrorist attack, including an act of bioterror. But as the spreading salmonella outbreak shows, there are huge holes in the government's ability to track, much less respond to, food-borne illnesses. Federal investigators have linked some of the cases to fresh jalapenos, and they are looking at whether contaminated tomatoes, serrano peppers and cilantro also contributed to the two deaths and hospitalization of 200 people so far. Surely, the Food and Drug Administration can do better.
At least 1,020 people in 41 states have been sickened since April, and 25 to 40 new cases of salmonella are being reported each day. FDA inspectors are collecting water, soil and produce samples, but they still have not nailed down the source of the largest food-borne outbreak in at least a decade. One reason is the government's failure to adequately track where produce goes. While laws to fight bioterrorism give regulators some ability to track foods, the rules do not provide a trail throughout the supply chain. Processors who repack food can make it almost impossible for officials to trace a product to its origin. That makes it harder to isolate contaminated food and contain any impact on public health once spoiled supplies reach the market.
Lawmakers, consumer groups and even some in the food industry want a system that tracks food products from the field to the table. While the FDA has made some progress, it has not made enough — and it does not seem to grasp the urgency. An associate commissioner at the agency told the New York Times that putting in place a full tracing system was "the industry's responsibility … not ours." That attitude is incredible in this day and age. The FDA needs to get busy putting a tracing system in place and improving the coordination among government agencies that respond to public health crises.