When manufactured products are found to be faulty or dangerous to consumers, regulators have little trouble tracing the problem to its source and recalling the products. But in today's regulatory system, recalling a tomato can be considerably harder.
As with spinach in 2006 and tainted seafood, pet food and peanut butter, bacteria-laden tomatoes have put a kink in the food chain with no immediate remedy in sight. Nearly two weeks ago, federal officials alerted consumers to avoid some raw tomatoes that might have been infected with the rare Salmonella Saintpaul.
The bacteria causes diarrhea, fever and discomfort that can last as long as a week, but it is rarely deadly for healthy adults. For infants and the elderly, however, the illness can be more serious, sometimes leading to death. So far, nearly 200 people in 17 have become sick from the bacteria.
The FDA has told consumers that tomatoes from some areas are safe. So are cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and those sold still on the vine. But the decree has thrown restaurants into a panic, with many removing tomatoes from the menu. And consumers can't be sure exactly which tomatoes might be safe to buy from grocers and produce stands.
This, of course, is at least a minor disaster for producers, as the 2006 scare was for spinach growers. When that crisis occurred, critics urged the FDA and other food regulatory agencies to develop a system to trace tainted food to its source and to give the agencies authority to issue mandatory recalls.
But now, with another outbreak of poisoned produce, neither safeguard has been enacted. Congress has yet to pass the Food Safety Act of 2007, which would allow mandatory recalls by both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And that bill still doesn't contain the tracking mechanism that would allow regulators to trace food products "from farm to fork." Federal agencies also need more money and manpower to do the job properly.
It's not as if the government is incapable of devising such a system. Last year, for example, federal officials traced and recalled lead-tainted toys that originated in China.
The primary argument against such a tracking system for food is that it would be too expensive. But producers, restaurant owners, grocers and, of course, those who were sickened by tainted tomatoes no doubt would take issue with that. In addition to giving regulators a way to trace the origins of food-borne disease agents, a tracking system also would be a powerful incentive for farmers to follow proper growing and harvesting safeguards.
Both the food industry and consumers deserve protection against crises like this. We shouldn't have to wait until the next food scare for Congress to act.
Congress needs to pass bills that allow food recalls and require tracking of tainted food.
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