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House panel talks salmonella scare

August 01, 2008|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The government bungled the salmonella outbreak probe so badly, a House committee chairman said Thursday, that federal investigators reminded him of the Keystone Kops. A committee member hoped the maligned tomato can get its good name back.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee conducted its own investigation of the Food and Drug Administration's probe of the salmonella scare. The outbreak, which began in April, has sickened more than 1,300 people and has set off a consumer scare that cost the produce industry more than $200 million.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said the case reminded him of "a Keystone Kops situation." (The Keystone Kops was a posse of incompetent police officers often seen in silent-movie comedies.) An investigation that should have taken hours or days instead has stretched on for weeks and months, the chairman said.

Federal investigators are now focused on hot peppers from Mexico -- jalapenos and serranos. They still suspect that tainted tomatoes were involved at first, but may never be able to prove it.

Holding up a bright-red tomato, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said: "We want their good name back."

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA, which share responsibility for handling outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, found themselves on the defensive at the hearing.

Several lawmakers said the fact that no single agency is in charge might be part of the problem. The CDC is responsible for identifying the pathogen and the type of food that has been contaminated; the FDA is supposed to trace the outbreak to its source.

The FDA's food safety chief, David Acheson, said the agency planned to convene a panel to review the Salmonella Saintpaul investigation. A faster system for tracing suspect produce might have allowed the FDA to clear tomatoes more rapidly, he said. Although many major firms can trace their suppliers within hours, most smaller growers and shippers rely on paper records.

Lonnie J. King, head of the CDC's center for food-borne illnesses, said his agency's analysis of detailed interviews with people who got sick found a very strong link to tomatoes.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), pointed out that questionnaires used in those interviews failed to ask whether patients had eaten fresh salsa, which might have linked peppers to the outbreak earlier on.

King said such information might have taken the investigation down a different road.

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