It's been the summer of the great tomato scare, and it hasn't been pretty.

People eyeing their neighbors' salsa with suspicion. Burgers without that wonderful red beefcake on top. Salads without those perky, juicy red slivers. Weeks of wondering if a chilled tomato-cucumber-cilantro mixture is a death sentence.

And all over America, one question: Why?

More than 1,000 people in 41 states and Washington, D.C., have gotten sick from a multi-state salmonella outbreak — the largest in a decade, and the government seems clueless about whether tomatoes, fresh jalapenos or Serrano peppers are the cause or where the contamination comes from or how to stop it.

Lou Dobbs, the CNN business know-it-all, says President Bush should be impeached over the mess at the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for safe food. Dobbs said the FDA is "excessively intellectually challenged" and "moronic." To leave the FDA leadership in its "sorry condition," Dobbs said, "is alone, to me, sufficient reason to impeach a president who has made this agency possible and has ripped its guts out in its ability to protect the American consumer."

The FDA keeps issuing bulletins warning against eating raw red plum, red Roma and red round tomatoes. "We're getting closer to identifying the source or sources," the FDA said, in early June.

Most recently the public was warned against eating hot red peppers. The elderly, people with immune deficiencies and infants are particularly at risk, the government warned. Seriously. Do parents feed infants hot red peppers?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says tomatoes are "particularly susceptible to contamination." Again, why? Can't a nation that makes tissues pop up one at a time out of a box and sells plastic bottles of tap water for $1 each develop a salmonella-proof tomato? (It should be noted that people who grow their own tomatoes on the vine are not at risk.)

There are the usual conspiracy theories. This is a bioterrorism plot. Americans without tomatoes are cranky. Others say it shows that the huge new powers to track tainted food that the government was given after 9/11 aren't sufficient. The new Bioterrorism Act is supposed to require importers, distributors and processors to maintain records on where all produce purchases are made and how they are used. Ha! Like that worked.

Not surprisingly, the government says it does not have the authority it needs to require so-called trace-back authority. The New York Times quotes former FDA officials as saying the FDA has the authority but not the will or the "impetus." Basically, it seems that the technology exists to trace farm products to the table, but this government does not want to burden the industry to require tomato growers to trace a product from the marketplace to the field, using electronic systems such as UPC codes, even though California already insists growers do that.

Last fall the FDA came out with a "food protection plan." But the White House did not ask Congress for money to pay for it. Well, not until Americans began getting sick. Last month the Health and Human Services Department said it would seek $125 million for food protection. Next year. (It's not as if food safety is as important as spending $1 billion a week to help the Iraqi government.)

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said the delay in getting money to protect American consumers from bad food is "criminal negligence." There goes his invitation to the next state dinner.

It's tempting to blame all this on incompetence. But it's more a question of whether, in rejecting ridiculously restrictive government regulations, the Bush administration has swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, leaving people at risk. Somewhere there's a happy medium.

In the meantime, it's time to make friends with that neighbor down the road who has her own garden.


Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.