When both food producers and consumers say the nation's food safety system is broken, something is seriously wrong. Tainted tomatoes are the latest scare for an overwhelmed Food and Drug Administration. Since late April, people have gotten seriously ill after eating tomatoes. The culprit is a strain of salmonella bacteria that showed up first in New Mexico and was traced to certain kinds of raw tomatoes.
This is where the FDA is supposed to swing into action, and it did in its own way. Yet people are still getting seriously ill (230 and counting so far), the outbreak is spreading (23 states including Florida have now reported cases) and food investigators still don't know the cause.
Florida tomato farmers have been hit hard. While the FDA has cleared 19 counties here to ship their produce (tomatoes are the state's biggest vegetable crop) it was slow to act, and growers fear eventual losses as high as $500-million. "We have to have some serious discussions with the FDA when we're through this crisis," said Bob Spencer, sales manager of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto.
Good luck in those discussions. Consumer advocates, public health officials and members of Congress have been trying to get the FDA to do a better job of protecting the food supply for years. Yet one food scare follows another with little hope of improvement.
The problem is that the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture — which split sometimes confusing responsibilities for food safety — have too little authority and too few resources to act effectively. Some in the food industry prefer such ambiguity because it helps them avoid costly regulations. When there is an outbreak of food-borne disease, however, everyone loses.
The FDA may never be able to trace the contamination back to its source, admits David Acheson, an FDA food safety administrator. It could be in the tomato fields, where soil or water could be tainted by animal waste; it could be spread by farm workers; it could be in water used to process tomatoes or introduced during storage. The mystery is hardly reassuring.
The FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have become adept at warning consumers of poisoned food, which undoubtedly saves lives. Prevention would save even more.
Congress needs to rewrite food safety laws to give the FDA and other agencies more clout, then hold administrators responsible if they fail to protect consumers. It will help if the next president takes this vital regulatory role more seriously than President Bush has.
Until that happens, the farming and food-processing industries need to clean up their own act, literally. They should call off their lobbyists who stall serious reform.
Nobody wants to buy food they fear is poisoned. For proof, look at the tons of perfectly good tomatoes, indistinguishable from the tainted ones, rotting in the fields or storage boxes.