Fresh salsa focus of Salmonella search

Elizabeth Weise writes in tomorrow’s USA Today that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked state and local health officials to focus their investigative efforts on items commonly used in the production of fresh salsa, particularly that made in local restaurants.

Salsas are typically made with tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, garlic and cilantro. They can also include tomatillos and other produce.

The focus does not involve commercially produced salsas. Salsas purchased in cans, jars or plastic containers in the refrigerated section of the supermarket are not being investigated. Fresh-made salsas only, prepared in the home or local restaurants, are the focus.

Tomatoes, originally considered the sole source of the outbreak, remain one of the targeted items, investigators say.

The Food and Drug Administration’s suggestion to avoid red round, Roma and plum tomatoes grown in certain areas is still in effect.

The latest figures for the outbreak are 887 sickened nationwide, with an additional 18 newly confirmed cases. At least 108 people were hospitalized.

Tom Nassif, president and chief executive of Western Growers, which represents produce producers in California and Arizona, said if the outbreak ends up not being associated with tomatoes, growers will have taken a tremendous hit for nothing, and if tomatoes are exonerated, Nassif says growers might ask for financial relief from Congress.

Bill Marler, one of the nation’s leading food-safety attorneys, said the FDA can’t be faulted for acting in the absence of a "smoking tomato" laced with the salmonella bacteria, stating, "Should they have waited until they knew exactly what it was? Well, whose side do they want to come down on: the side of public health and kids or the produce industry?"

I wrote something similar regarding the actions of Ontario government officials after the 1996 cyclospora outbreak (was it California strawberries, no it was Guatemalan raspberries) in the book, Risk and Regulation.

"Once epidemiology identifies a probable link, health officials have to decide whether it makes sense to warn the public. In retrospect, the decision seems straightforward, but there are several possibilities that must be weighed at the time. If the Ontario Ministry of Health decided to warn people that eating imported strawberries might be connected to Cyclospora infection, two outcomes were possible: if it turned out that strawberries are implicated, the ministry has made a smart decision, warning people against something that could hurt them; if strawberries were not implicated, then the ministry has made a bad decision with the result that strawberry growers and sellers will lose money and people will stop eating something that is good for them. If the ministry decides not to warn people, another two outcomes are possible: if strawberries were implicated, then the ministry has made a bad decision and people may get a parasitic infection they would have avoided had they been given the information (lawsuits usually follow); if strawberries were definitely not implicated then nothing happens, the industry does not suffer and the ministry does not get in trouble for not telling people."

I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.