WASHINGTON — Turf struggles, bad communication and weak leadership undermined the federal response to a recent salmonella outbreak that cost the tomato industry a bundle, witnesses told a House of Representatives subcommittee Thursday.
Lawmakers joined farmers in a wholesale attack on the Food and Drug Administration's performance, potentially laying the political foundation for a regulatory overhaul and multimillion-dollar compensation package.
"We have been the primary injured party," Reginald Brown, the executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, told the House panel, "and we look forward to Congress addressing that in the future."
Farmers say that the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention erred in indicating that the salmonella outbreak was associated with tomatoes. State regulators testified that the FDA shared information reluctantly, while produce industry representatives complained that no one seemed to be in charge.
"We've noticed tensions (and) rivalries" among federal food-safety agencies, United Fresh Produce Association President Thomas E. Stenzel told the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations panel.
Federal food-safety officials still decline to exonerate tomatoes, although they say that fresh tomatoes currently on the market are safe. FDA Assistant Commissioner David Acheson stressed Thursday that the initial reported illnesses were "statistically linked to consumption of raw tomatoes," although no tainted tomatoes were found.
More than 1,300 U.S. residents have been sickened by the salmonella Saintpaul strain in the past three months. At least 252 people have been hospitalized in 43 states, and two have died.
The complex investigation is ongoing, and California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura acknowledged that federal authorities "have been working very hard with the resources they have." Nonetheless, some of the 16 witnesses summoned Thursday recommended that an outside blue-ribbon panel thoroughly examine what happened.
"If we do not learn from this case, we will be doomed to repeat the failures," said Rep. Bart Stupak, R-Mich., the subcommittee's chairman.
The uproar isn't over the fact that people got sick from salmonella, a group of bacteria commonly found in animal intestines. About 40,000 cases of salmonellosis are diagnosed annually, according to the FDA. Rather, the current problem rose from the response of regulators.
The FDA warned consumers nationwide June 7 against three types of tomatoes thought to be possibly implicated in the outbreak. The agency lifted its warning July 17. Investigators subsequently have traced salmonella to jalapeno and serrano peppers grown on two Mexican ranches.
The finger-pointing has been escalating nearly as fast as the damage estimates.
"From the very beginning, it was clear to us that FDA was not sharing important information with state regulators," Florida Agricultural Commissioner Charles Bronson testified.
Last week, eight Florida lawmakers introduced a bill authorizing $100 million in compensation for growers and others who lost business as a result of the FDA's consumer warnings. By Thursday, Stenzel put the losses at about $200 million. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., suggested this week that the cost could reach $300 million or more.
Some of the claimed losses are direct, the price tag for tomatoes that were destroyed because they couldn't be sold. Other claimed losses are estimated by comparing conventional sales records with the reduced sales that followed the FDA's warnings.
"In just the first week, we lost several hundred thousand dollars' worth of perfectly good tomatoes," said Parker Booth, the president of the Ace Tomato Co., based in Manteca, Calif. "We are still tallying the total impact."
Ed Beckman of the Fresno-based California Tomato Farmers said contamination tracking would be speedier if all states used the same stringent traceability standards as Florida and California. In a recent test, investigators needed only 35 minutes to trace a tomato from a Sacramento Jack in the Box restaurant to a tomato field near the San Joaquin Valley town of Huron.
"I think (FDA's trace-back) could be improved in terms of increasing its speed," the FDA's Acheson acknowledged.