The salmonella outbreak has not only sickened close to 1,000 people, it has inflicted an embarrassing blow to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
After weeks of warning consumers away from the most common fresh tomatoes, the FDA now says it isn't sure that tomatoes are to blame. About 1,700 tomatoes have been tested, and none has contained the Salmonella Saintpaul bacterium implicated in the outbreak. Meanwhile, more people have fallen ill. Though tomatoes are still suspect, investigators are now examining the ingredients of fresh salsa, including cilantro, tomatillos and at least two types of peppers. All this comes a year after the FDA began its tp:// www.cfsan.fda.gov/%7Edms/tomsafe.html "> www.cfsan.fda.gov/%7Edms/tomsafe.html in response to previous salmonella outbreaks.
Incensed tomato producers, having lost $100 million so far, complain that the FDA was too hasty in issuing a warning. We disagree. As costly and painful as the whole mystery has been, imagine if the FDA had reason to suspect tomatoes and failed to warn the public.
Though public attention is on the FDA's current inability to find the source of the salmonella, the true breakdowns in its operations have been building for years, from grossly inadequate funding -- the agency has only enough staff to inspect fields once every 10 years -- to its own failure to require such sensible procedures as bar-coded labels that could be used to track produce.