Parts of Florida and Mexico remain leading suspects because they were supplying “the vast majority” of tomatoes that were sold in April and May in states where people got sick, Acheson says.
The Produce Marketing Association (PMA), an industry group, earlier this year began pushing growers and suppliers to take a voluntary first step to make fresh produce more traceable in case of outbreaks: Putting codes on the boxes they’re shipped in would help authorities track the different stops they make from farm to packer to supplier to store or restaurant.
A bigger change is coming. Thanks to a newly passed law, fresh produce will start bearing labels that identify the foods’ country of origin later this year. U.S.-grown produce must bear the labels, too.
About 60 percent of the top 40 produce items already bear some labeling, mostly brand-type advertising such as “Washington apples” or “Jersey fresh,” says PMA vice president Kathy Means. But tomatoes are among the least labeled, and will have to change.
“The technology exists today that would allow for much better traceback of commodities like tomatoes, but it won’t be used until the industry is required to by the government,” says consumer advocate DeWaal.
Her Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA almost two years ago to require all growers to have a written food-safety plan that included how they trace their produce. The FDA hasn’t ruled on that petition; she calls Congress’ passage of country-of-origin labels a first step.
The FDA just asked Congress for an extra $125 million for food safety programs next year, and better traceback, along with more inspections and other contamination-prevention steps, are among Acheson’s plans for spending it.
But, don’t assume a sticker saying what country tomatoes came from would have cracked the salmonella case, Acheson stresses. It might even have complicated it if, say, a sick consumer swore he always buys California tomatoes, but last week the store substituted ones from Mexico or Florida and he didn’t notice.
“You can wind up in a bad place because of that,” Acheson says.
“It is hard enough for folks to remember what they ate, let alone where it was from,” agrees the produce industry’s Means.
This Food and Drug Administration resource page provides readers with breaking information on the outbreak, answers to frequently asked questions, consumer health information, news on what the agency is doing and more. More »
Baja California has been cleared of suspicion in the outbreak of salmonella-tainted tomatoes, which U.S. officials said Monday now has sickened 277 people. More »
They were two of many national restaurant chains that stopped serving tomatoes earlier this month amid a multistate salmonella outbreak linked to raw tomatoes, although there was no connection to the restaurants. More »