July 1st, 2008
04:13 PM ET

Food safety

By David Martin
CNN Medical Senior Producer

The salmonella outbreak linked to tomatoes, which has sickened more than 850 people since April, is only the latest in a spate of food-borne outbreaks that began in the fall of 2006.


E. coli-tainted spinach killed three and sickened more than 200 that year. Since then, tainted lettuce, peanut butter, olives, mushrooms, beef and now tomatoes have sickened hundreds, perhaps thousands, more. Today the FDA and CDC said they are looking at other produce, in addition to tomatoes, as the source of the current salmonella outbreak. Officials refused to be more specific and did not identify other produce.

Now, seeking to allay consumers’ fears, the United Fresh Produce Association is asking for federal safety regulations, an unusual move for a trade group.

“United Fresh believes that for maximum consumer confidence we need mandatory federal standards for fresh produce,” said David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology of the group, which represents fruit and vegetable growers nationally.

“Those standards need to be commodity specific because one size does not fit all. They should be risk based and they should be flexible enough to change as science catches up,” he added.

A national survey by the Harvard School of Public Health Project on the Public and Biological Security finds most Americans - 58 percent - deem food produced in the United States as “somewhat safe.” That’s far more than the 37 percent who considered food “very safe.”

Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration, said food in the United States is “incredibly safe.” Still, he is looking for more legislative authority from Congress to deal with food safety, including federal requirements for growers. There are none now.

The FDA is also hoping to expand inspections oversees in places like China and India, he said. Fewer than 1 percent of imports are now inspected.
“This is not a quick overnight fix,” Acheson said. “It’s going to be a slow, incremental fix over a number of years.

Meantime, the numbers of the outbreak of a rare form of bacteria called Salmonella Saintpaul has sickened at least 851 people in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

The FDA had linked the outbreak to red Roma, plum and round tomatoes but on Friday the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention said the cause might lie elsewhere.

"Produce investigations are very difficult because a lot of times vegetables are eaten all together," said Dr. Patricia Griffin, chief of the Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That makes it hard to trace back any one item to a source of contamination, she added. "We continue to keep an open mind about the possible source of this outbreak, as does FDA."

Acheson said FDA officials and tomato growers were involved in "a two-way dialogue.”

Do you think the food you eat is generally safe?

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Ed

    If the FDA would put their partnership and greed aside with Big Pharma
    and focus on the food issues like the tomatoes, we would not have this problem. There are only less than 1% of the food imported is being inspected. What a travesty! This is insane. I think they purposely do this so that the American people can get sick.
    FDA sucks!

    July 2, 2008 at 08:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. C Anne

    I have no confidence in the FDA and its ability to monitor food quality. Decades of US administrations' neglect has left us with these outbreaks, caused by tainted food from the US and imports from around the world. This latest problem is just that: only the latest in what may be a never-ending issue, so long as the monitoring and inspections are so few and far between. I still remember the tainted pet food from China not so long ago; was this ever resolved? And the probems now with the tomatoes; is anyone planning on letting the consumer know what other foods may be affected?
    (sigh) All this uncertainty is part of my motivation to enlarge my garden and take up canning and freezing vegetables this summer. For all the ribbing I take from friends and family, there is something to be said about a vegan diet, taking from local sources and your own garden.

    July 2, 2008 at 12:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. 12 year old boy

    i think that the FDA should do more to find the source of the contaminated tomatoes,and as a twelve year old boy ,I probably don't know much about the contamination,but i think that they should do better to prevent another contamination like this

    July 2, 2008 at 14:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Cynthia

    Is anyone in government observing how the contamination is spread across the country and looking at possibilities such as whether the contamination came from insecticides (sprayed) and/or fertilizers and where those ingredients originated from (poss. china)?

    It seems impossible to me that contamination of our nations food supply can be across the entire country and the commonality of what growers use in growing those foods is not looked at as a possible source of the contamination.

    Has anyone heard of any investigation into the above mentioned areas?

    July 2, 2008 at 20:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Louise

    I think most of the food is safe. Do I think the FDA does a good job keeping our food safe? The answer is no. I usually buy my produce at the farmers market. That way I know where it came from. I know it is far fresher than what is in the store. Since most of the farmers are certified organic, I know that pesticides weren't used. Unfortunately, when I buy produce in the grocery store, I don't know what was done in other states or countries or how it was processed, shipped, and handled.

    July 3, 2008 at 00:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Stewart Watson

    If there is any moral imperative of a free media it is the protection of the public from danger to their lives. The USDA openly admits that it has no idea where the poisoning of Americans is coming from and is doing very little because of it's ties to large argra business. I was wondering though why CNN was not telling the public that the only way to ensure their health and that of their children was to only purchase raw produce that was grown locally by known farmers. If the public is unaware how to do this they can simply go to http://www.localharvest.org/ and find out what is locally grown in your area. I hope that impotence of the USDA to protect the public from danger is a regular topic of dicussion

    July 4, 2008 at 11:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Robert Ross

    With all the attention now on food safety for fresh produce, you'd think someone would consider some of the natural products available for disinfecting produce as alternatives the the highly contraversial, and possibly even dangerous, use of irradiation. Dr. Gupta's recent report on this subject on CNN failed to examine this alternatives, as does the produce industry itself, even though some are proven effective against e coli and salmonella and other pathogens.

    A natural product called fit, available for the industrial market as well as home-use, claims to kill 99.9% of harmful bacteria - like E. Coli, Salmonella sp., Staphylococcus aureus, and Listeria. Someone should check that out and let people know!

    Personally, I use a $40 (on eBay) ozone generator to saturate a sink-load of water with ozone, which I then soak my produce in. There are several ozone-based produce sanitizer products for home use on the market, as well a some industrial type products designed fro salad greens and such. As an oxidizer, ozone is 51 times as powerful than chlorine, the oxidizer most commonly used by most food processors, and 3,000 times faster at killing bacteria and other microbes. Ozone is effective as a disinfectant at relatively low concentrations and does not leave toxic by-products similar to those related to chlorination.

    So why aren't these products covered by the major media in all the numerous stories on salmonella or e coli outbreaks? Yet a controversial and possibly harful technology like irradiation is painted to look like the technology of choice for the future. Let's hope that it is merely just an oversight!

    Dr. Gupta, please examine these alternative technologies with the thoroughness and commitment you typically give to all your reports on the things that affect our health.

    July 5, 2008 at 07:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Vida Tattrie

    When I was a child we had a small mixed farm. We grew our own garden and along with our neighbors, we used cattle manure as a fertilizer. No one got sick from eating those vegetables. Why did no one get e-coli back then? Was it because of the natural food (grass, hay) that the cattle ate? Can't believe how unsafe our food is nowadays.

    July 5, 2008 at 14:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Jim

    It is just another instance of people NOT DOING THEIR JOB & STILL GETTING PAID FOR IT.
    Fortunatly when it comes to fruits & vegetables I can grow my own
    Meat however is a different matter7 if we keep having problems with that Then I'll just move up into the Mountains & live off the land Something you city folk wouldn't last a month doing.

    July 5, 2008 at 19:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Suzi B

    When my husband was stationed overseas, we were told to always soak our vegetables in 1 gal of water with 3 tablespoons of bleach and then rinse. Supposedly the vegetables might have been grown in "night soil" and this would prevent illness. It was also felt the the bleach would help "bind" the vitamin A. I have no idea if this was all true.. . . . but we never were ill.
    I've not heard this procedure used during these latest outbreaks.

    July 6, 2008 at 07:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Carolyn

    As long as we continue to massively produce animals for food we are going to continue having real food contaminated with the bowel movements of the animals being raised to eat. There is no way to raise 10 billion land animals in this country alone every year (and increasing every year) and have clean water and soil to grow real food. Granted, bowel movements of animals do make vegetables grow faster and larger, but think about what is actually being put on your food. It is what you do in your toilet. Even organic manure is still manure and can make you sick. There is a new method of farming called veganic agriculture. Check it out at http://www.goveganic.net This is a way of gardening without using animal manure. As long as people continue eating as they do, mine as well as their real food will continue being contaminated with fecal material. Yes, wild animals will also come in contact with some of plant agriculture, but this does not cause the wide spread sickness that we see today. I haven't heard of anyone who produces their own vegetable gardens in their backyards dying of e.coli lately. Begin asking your local farmers as well as your Representatives to begin implementing raising your food without the bowel movements of animals.

    July 6, 2008 at 10:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. donna marie

    Hi Doctor,
    Please tell people who can't find irradiated vegetables to wash them in vinegar. I typed e-coli and vinegar into my browser and noticed that vinegar, being an acid substance, can kill bad bacteria.

    July 6, 2008 at 14:06 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.