Food Engineering

Summer's <i>Salmonella</i> summons scrutiny

November 25, 2008

Weaknesses in food safety policy, organization and communications were all displayed during summer’s outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul, according to a report released by the Produce Safety Project (PSP), an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts at Georgetown University.

The report, Breakdown: Lessons to be Learned from the 2008 Salmonella Saintpaul Outbreak, reviews the public record of last summer’s Salmonella outbreak that caused more than 1,400 people to become sick across the US.

Congressional leaders and produce industry representatives called for public health officials to analyze the public health system’s response to the outbreak. The report frames questions such a review should consider. In particular, the report focuses on food safety policy; the public health system’s organization, capacity and effectiveness in the outbreak response; and risk communications with the media and public.

Highlights and recommendations include:

  • The need for FDA to use its existing statutory authorities to establish mandatory and enforceable safety standards for fresh produce. While FDA officials said the outbreak showed the need for these standards, they said Congress needs to pass legislation to grant FDA explicit authority to do so.
  • The need for organizational reforms throughout the public health system for a more coordinated outbreak response. The report raises questions about how timely and effectively data was shared between public health agencies and how it contributed to a delayed identification of jalapeño and Serrano peppers as a vehicle for Salmonella Saintpaul.
  • The need to have established and unified risk communication plans in place before an outbreak. The report documents dueling public health messages from various agencies announcing the outbreak and questions why CDC changed its presentation of data numerous times in the middle of the outbreak.

“Many of these problems have been identified for years by expert body after expert body,” said Jim O’Hara, director of PSP. “If we pass up this opportunity to learn from this most recent outbreak, we will keep repeating the same costly mistakes-for public health and industry alike.”

For more information online, visit www.producesafetyproject.org.