Well, it looks like tomatoes are safe to eat again.
But watch out for those jalapenos.
Federal health officials finally were able to trace a strain of salmonella to a jalapeno pepper in Texas, but not before the food-borne illness had sickened more than 1,200 people since April. The news also did not come soon enough to rescue hundreds of tomato farmers who were unable to sell their produce once federal agents announced that tomatoes were the suspected culprit in the salmonella outbreak.
Much the same thing could be happening now to jalapeno producers. Once investigators announced that peppers were responsible for the outbreak, restaurants and groceries nationwide have pulled fresh jalapenos from their shelves and menus.
For the record, it is safe to eat cooked jalapenos or those grown in home gardens. Also, the tainted peppers were traced to a single distributor in Texas that had packed jalapenos grown in Mexico for U.S. consumption.
But the uncertainty and delay in tracing the source of this outbreak -- the largest in America in a decade -- point to the urgent need for reform of the nation's food-safety system. While Congress appears finally to have gotten the message that changes in the system are necessary, Americans are entitled to ask what took lawmakers so long to act.
While this is the most serious outbreak of food-borne illness in a decade, it is hardly the only one. In February, the government recalled 143 million pounds of beef, the largest recall of meat in the nation's history, after some of it was found to be tainted. Before that, the nation had been afflicted with spinach contaminated with e-coli bacteria, poisoned pet food from China, and tainted fish.
In the latest episode, agents from the federal Food and Drug Administration might still be looking for the culprit if Minnesota Department of Health investigators hadn't discovered the tainted jalapenos, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. With a quick-response system that includes what Minnesota state officials call their "Team Diarrhea," the state Department of Health was able to quickly trace the source of sickness that had eluded federal officials for two months.
On June 23, state officials identified cases of the salmonella strain linked to the outbreak. By June 29, they had narrowed the case to a restaurant in St. Paul. On June 30, they had traced the origin of the peppers in Mexico, and on July 3, they notified the national Centers for Disease Control. A tainted pepper was collected on July 11.
Minnesota scientists are scheduled to testify before Congress this week. They plan to tell lawmakers that the national system should be modeled on Minnesota's.
A bill already has been introduced in the House that would require the FDA and the Department of Agriculture to develop a system capable of tracing food products quickly and accurately. Congress should waste no more time in getting that process started.
The current system doesn't work. Just ask America's tomato farmers and the 1,200 people who got sick from poisoned peppers.
Congress must demand that federal agencies devise a workable system to trace food supply.
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