The FDA's salmonella snafu

Lawmakers are holding hearings this week to investigate the great salsa epidemic of 2008 - an outbreak of salmonella, originally blamed on tomatoes but ultimately traced to Mexican jalapeños, that has sickened almost 1,300 people in 43 states and been implicated in two deaths. The outbreak, and the FDA’s inability to quickly trace and isolate the source, caused business losses estimated at a quarter-billion dollars. Ironically, though, the food industry has nobody to blame but itself.

Back in 2002, Congress passed legislation designed to prevent bioterrorism on American soil - legislation that, among other things, created new traceability tools to help officials deal with incidents involving the intentional contamination of the US food supply. Over the next two years, the FDA came up with a string of new regulations - better record-keeping, more diligent tracking of food sources, an electronic system for tracking orders - that would enable its officials to trace the source of contaminated food and minimize the fallout from a food emergency.

Unfortunately, the FDA’s regulatory wish-list swiftly ran up against political reality: Behind closed doors, senior administration officials were busy holding meetings with food industry representatives, who feared the new rules would be expensive to implement. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, at least 31 food lobbyists held private meetings with White House officials. While no minutes have yet been released, the meetings’ agendas show that the lobbyists’ main goal was to convince officials that the new rules were “costly” and “unreasonable and unnecessary”.

The meetings had the desired effect: The FDA substantially diluted its Bioterrorism Act regulations, allowing companies to maintain only minimal records of their food orders, and canceling plans to force food suppliers to switch to electronic record-keeping. That’s had a direct impact on the agency’s ability to respond to the current contamination crisis, leading them to falsely blame tomatoes. In turn, the mistake has left thousands of consumers at risk and caused massive economic harm to innocent farmers.

Even the food lobbyists say the situation should never have been allowed to arise: Robert Brackett, senior VP of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, told reporters that it would have been better all round if the FDA had enacted the rules his organization spent millions of dollars lobbying against. "In retrospect, yes, if [the regulations] had been broader and a bit more far-reaching, it could have helped with this," he said. "It wouldn't have hurt, for sure." Let’s hope Brackett and his colleagues remember that the next time government officials try to regulate their industry.