Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Salmonella - Tomato Tribulation? Pick Your Poison.

(UPDATED 6/20, 7/2, 7/5, 7/12, 7/18, 7/22, 7/31, 8/1)
For weeks, the media has been in a lather over tainted tomatoes. Headlines: "Red Alert Over Salmonella!"; "Tomatoes – Superfood Or Poison?" "TOMATO TURMOIL!"; "Tomato Poisoning in Ohio."; "A crop of concern." (In the minds eye, a physician with furrowed brow, saying, 'I'm sorry . . .') "Tomatoes not relenting, US still in salmonella soup." (Tomatoes not relenting?? For cryin' out loud, who writes this stuff?) "FDA: You better know where that tomato's from."; "Public health a priority in tomato scare." (Who knew?) "Congress should move on food-safety measure." Ah. Now that was inevitable.

We're told that as of last Friday, the number of salmonella cases (not deaths) from the "unrelenting" tomato reached 228 across the U.S. What we're not told that that's one in about 1,316,000 Americans. Think the odds of being struck by lightning are better? You're right. According to NOAA, the combined number of deaths and injuries due to lightning strikes in a given year is 400. The odds of being struck by lightning in a given year is one in 700,000. (The numbers are down, possibly because of lightning-awareness programs - instituted, no doubt, on the off chance you missed the fact that lightning is dangerous, and likes metal and trees.)

We can all agree that public information on potential hazards is good. But why the hyperventilation on tomatoes? Because it sells, you say. But surely there are other interesting possibilities to help turn the evening news into an approximation of a Stephen King movie. In the FDA's "Bad Bug Book" we find lots of details on the dreaded salmonella.

Reported cases of Salmonellosis in the U.S. excluding typhoid fever for the years 1988 to 1995. The number of cases for each year varies between 40,000 and 50,000. From Summary of Notifiable Diseases, United States MMWR 44(53): 1996 (October 25).
However, the estimates (same page) are quite different:
Relative Frequency of Disease: It is estimated that from 2 to 4 million cases of salmonellosis occur in the U.S. annually.
(They don't say how we get from a relatively modest 40,000 reported to the terrifying estimated 4 million. Multiply, I guess.) You can get salmonella from home-made ice cream, commercially prepared ice cream, raw meats, poultry, eggs, milk and assorted dairy products, fish, shrimp, frog legs, yeast, coconut, sauces and salad dressing, cake mixes, cream-filled desserts and toppings, dried gelatin, peanut butter, cocoa and chocolate, pot pies, cantelopes, and pet food. Forget spinach. That was a different media blitz.

There's all sorts of stuff to report on in the Bad Bug Book. There's clostridium botulinum, and shigella, mushroom toxins and shellfish toxins and gempylotoxin. There's grayanotoxin - honey intoxication - from honey produced from the nectar of rhododendrons. (Do not try this at home.) Not many people get honey-intoxicated, but it's bound to be more entertaining than 228 people with the runs. Not that they don't have my sympathy, you understand.

Now with all those possibilities for a good ol' MSM-induced panic, why on earth are they focused on our salad bowls? (Now you can think about spinach.) I think it's socially irresponsible, when other national threats - like the obesity crisis - need to be on center stage. Surely there are other perfectly good grant-inducing agency-expanding emergencies to exploit. For example, I again consulted the Bad Bug Book, and found this:
Aflatoxicosis is poisoning that results from ingestion of aflatoxins in contaminated food or feed. The aflatoxins are a group of structurally related toxic compounds produced by certain strains of the fungi Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus. Under favorable conditions of temperature and humidity, these fungi grow on certain foods and feeds, resulting in the production of aflatoxins. The most pronounced contamination has been encountered in tree nuts, peanuts, and other oilseeds, including corn and cottonseed.
Now that is a win-win. Get everybody terrified about corn-associated aflatoxicosis, demand for corn goes down, and poof - cheaper food and ethanol.

So, if I could give advice to the big media guys, it would be this: If you want to produce thousands of articles with alot of spooky and not much info, change it up a little. Might improve the bottom line.

(Just a minute . . . . . . okay, I'm back. Distressed spouse called me to the kitchen. There was smoke pouring from the oven. Filled the kitchen and the dining room. "Some smoke detector we got," says the spouse. "Put a pizza in the oven - no smoke - and the thing goes off. Fill the entire house with smoke, and nuthin'." I wouldn't have mentioned it, but it seemed analogous somehow. Maybe it's me.)

(H/T Youchki, our fearless undercover email correspondent, who thinks these tomatoes may have come into contact with the dreaded toxic-jock.)

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UPDATE #1
6/20/08
Lou Dobbs has added the "killer tomato" to the list of Things That Are George Bush's Fault. He's calling for impeachment.

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UPDATE #2:
7/2/2008
LAURAN NEERGAARD, AP Medical Writer reports these new developments:
WASHINGTON - Adding to tomato confusion, the government is about to start testing numerous other types of fresh produce in the hunt for the source of the nation's record salmonella outbreak — even as it insists tomatoes remain the leading suspect.

Investigators are mum on exactly what other vegetables are getting tracked.

Items commonly served with fresh tomatoes is the only hint Food and Drug Administration food safety chief Dr. David Acheson would give, calling it "irresponsible" to point a finger until he has more evidence that some other food really deserves the extra scrutiny.

"Tomatoes aren't off the hook," he stressed. "It's just that there is clearly a need to think beyond tomatoes."
Hm. Looks like we're playing food-roulette, what with the unnamed culprits "beyond" the current one. According to the WSJ (Zhang, Jargon, and Miranda), as of July 1, the outbreak has already cost the food industry at least $100,000,000 as tomatoes rot on the vine, and has sickened 810.

Since the number of cases now number 810 of a population of about 300,000,000 Americans, (that's one in about 370,000) it is no longer more likely that you will be struck by lightning than become one of them. So if you feel the need to panic now, you go right ahead. We'll wait.

H/T Youchki, our Braveheart of undercover email correspondents, who says, "Alas. The poor tomato. Unjustly accused. Reminds me of Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First". The last paragraph gets to the truth. More $$$."

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UPDATE #3
7/5/2008

Today this headline is on the front page of WSJ:
Jalapenos Probed in Outbreak: Tomatoes No Longer Seen as Prime Suspect for Salmonella; Jalapenos Now are the Principal Suspect in Salmonella Poisoning Case
But officials are also looking at cilantro, and Serrano peppers.
"Health officials said the evidence linking jalapenos to the disease is compelling, but are erring on the side of caution before making a public warning."
A public warning would be somewhere other than the front page of the WSJ, evidently.
"Lola Russell, a CDC spokesperson, would not confirm or deny that jalapeno peppers are a top suspect."
Plausable deniability. Ix-nay on the ysteria-hay. Meanwhile, the industry is still harvesting and destroying tomatoes, and the financial losses are huge. And now there's a jalapeno-cilantro-Serrano and tomato nexus, so, they're looking at salsa.
Richie Jackson, chief executive of the Texas Restaurant Association, said the CDC's focus on salsa could confuse consumers and frustrate restaurants. The state has confirmed more than 350 cases, the highest number of any state in the U.S. "To blame salsa brings nothing to the table," said Mr. Jackson . .
Yeah, I saw it too. Let's not go there.

(WSJ article authors: Jane Zhang and Janet Adamy)
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UPDATE #4
7/12/08
Now it's basil. Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor, Reuters UK:
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Basil may have joined the list of food suspected in an outbreak of Salmonella food poisoning that has sickened more than 1,000 people, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said on Friday.

The FDA said Lucky Green Trading Inc. of Garden Grove, California, had recalled all of its Thai basil after random testing had shown it tested positive for Salmonella.

No illnesses were traced to the herb, the FDA said.
Okay, then. That explains it.
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UPDATE #5
7/18/08

Jane Zhang of the Wall Street Journal reports:
The Food and Drug Administration declared tomatoes safe to eat, saying it is focusing on hot peppers in its hunt for the source of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 1,200 people in the U.S. and Canada . . .

The FDA, which originally blamed tomatoes for the outbreak that started April 10, says it is focusing on jalapeno peppers, which it said have caused illnesses, as well as Serrano peppers, which can be confused with jalapenos . . .

Still, because they haven't pinpointed the source of the outbreak, federal officials say they can't exonerate tomatoes. In fact, because many foods are consumed together, it may be 'likely that we may never prove a negative," Dr. [Robert] Tauxe [of the CDC] said.
So, tomatoes are safe again (or still), unless they're not; jalapeno peppers are accused, unless they are Serrano peppers which might be confused with jalapenos and may or may not be safe because the CDC can't prove a negative.

There you have it. Hope that clears things up.
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UPDATE #6
7/22, 7/31/2008

July 22: Catherine Elsworth (in Los Angeles), Telegraph UK reported:
Investigators seeking the source of a nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,251 people and led to the destruction of millions of dollars worth of tomatoes have finally found their first major clue in the case - a single jalapeno pepper.
July 31: E. EDUARDO CASTILLO, Associated Press:
MEXICO CITY - Mexican agriculture officials said Thursday that U.S. colleagues hunting for the source of a salmonella outbreak are rushing to a conclusion about finding the strain at a Mexican pepper farm.
(Surely not. What would give the Mexican officials that idea?)
The salmonella sample that one U.S. official called "a smoking gun" was taken from a water tank that had not been used for more than two months to irrigate crops, said the director of Mexico's Farm Food Quality Service, Enrique Sanchez.

Sanchez said Mexico produces 2.4 million tons of peppers per year but exports only 12,000 tons are exported fresh to the United States. Another 267,000 tons of canned or bottled peppers are sent to the U.S. each year, he said.
(H/T Youchki, who's comment shows signs of stress from the months-long panic: "Peter Piper picked a peck . . . how may peppers are there in 2.4 million tons? Who's making the call to Peter? Where is the Piper when you need him? Disaster looms . . .")

UPDATE #7
8/1/2008

Enea Zhonga, Infozine reports:
Washington, D.C. - Scripps Howard Foundation Wire - infoZine - The FDA has traced the salmonella strain to irrigation water used by a grower in Tamaulipas, Mexico, and to a sample from a batch of serrano peppers at a packing facility in Nuevo Leon, Mexico.

David Acheson, FDA associate commissioner for foods, told a House subcommittee Wednesday: "This is breaking news right now. This was learned just two hours ago. Basically what this says is consumers should stay away from serrano peppers and jalapeƱo peppers from Mexico."

Acheson said the FDA will continue its investigation in Mexico. He warned against tomatoes because the "possibility of cross-contamination is likely."

Although the outbreak was first suspected to be in tomatoes, no contaminated tomatoes have been found.
Keeping score? That's tomatoes to jalapeno's to serranos to cilantro to basil to serranos to jalapenos, and back to tomatoes. No contamination on tomatoes (so far - though I think the FDA & CDC would be relieved of some embarassment if they found some.) One jalapeno, a serrano pepper sample, and a tank of water were contaminated.

UPDATE #8
8/1/2008
Now, the government-investigation is being government-investigated.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, AP, "Salmonella probe likened to 'Keystone Kops'":
The House Energy and Commerce Committee conducted its own investigation of the Food and Drug Administration's investigation of the salmonella scare. The outbreak has sickened more than 1,300 people this summer and set off a consumer scare that cost the produce industry more than $200 million.

To the chairman, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the case reminded him of "a Keystone Kops situation." An investigation that should have taken hours or days instead has stretched on for weeks and months, he said.

Federal investigators are now focused on hot peppers from Mexico — jalapenos and serranos. They still suspect that tainted tomatoes were involved at first, but they may never be able to prove it.

Holding up a bright red tomato, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., declared: "We want their good name back."
And the bankrupt tomato producers want their businesses back, and the industry wants its losses reversed, and I want an in-ground swimming pool - and none of that is going to happen. I will predict two winners, though, now that we have Kongressional Keystone grandstanding and tomato brandishing. The winners will be the FDA and the CDC, who will, as a result of this press conference driven fiasco, get huge increases in funding.

2 comments:

Frendy said...

You know I make a delicious pico de gallo with fresh tomatoes, chile peppers, and cilantro. This media fueled panic is terrible. At first I was amused when told at the local restaurant that I couldn't get a slice of tomato on my tasty cheeseburger, but now they are going to far.

Pat said...

They sure are. It's been a disaster for growers & most of the damage has been for nothing.

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