The Food and Drug Administration has a difficult job. On the one hand, if it suspects a certain crop is tainted, making American consumers sick, it needs to act post-haste.
But it must act in a way that fosters public confidence. Take the FDA's recent alert about a salmonella outbreak associated with the consumption of three types of raw tomatoes grown in the United States. No tainted tomatoes have been found. Authorities have since linked the illnesses to jalapeno and serrano peppers grown on two Mexican ranches.
Tomato growers say this scare resulted in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars for the industry. But it also spotlighted glaring deficiencies within the federal agency that is charged to protect consumers. Congress needs to investigate reforms.
Testimony before a House subcommittee revealed turf struggles and weak communication by the FDA. Bloomberg News reported that Florida agriculture officials were not asked for help by federal investigators who believed Florida tomatoes were linked to the nationwide salmonella outbreak. Florida officials could have reached tomato growers faster to verify the crops were contaminated or rule them out. Seeking assistance would have enabled the FDA to point its investigators elsewhere and reduced losses for tomato growers.
FDA officials say its investigation was delayed by difficulties in following tomatoes through the supply chain from farms to restaurants and grocery stores. The federal government should have as good, if not better, technology and investigative means than states to track contamination.
Some states, such as Florida and California, have fast and accurate means to pinpoint problems. In a recent test, California investigators tracked a tomato from a Jack in the Box restaurant in Sacramento to a field in the San Joaquin Valley in just 35 minutes.
Granted, it is easier to track produce within a given state than across the entire nation, yet this raises questions as to why federal regulators did not avail themselves to the expertise and technology of the state of Florida when the salmonella outbreak occurred.
When the health and safety of consumers is at issue, protecting turf should be federal regulators' last concern. All efforts need to be focused on locating the source of contaminated food and protecting consumers.