First the CDC and the FDA told us that tomatoes were the likely culprit of the salmonella outbreak that has affected nearly a thousand people since it was first reported on April 10. Now, after tomato growers and distributors have lost hundreds of million of dollars destroying and throwing out supposedly tainted product, there are reports that the CDC thinks jalapeños might be the culprit.
Then again, the government is saying it could be one of a half dozen ingredients used to make salsa. It seems to me that the only thing we can definitively conclude from this episode is that our food safety system is irretrievably broken.
According to the Wall Street Journal, "Health officials said the evidence linking jalapeños to the disease is compelling, but are erring on the side of caution before making a public warning."
Didn't these same officials say the same thing about tomatoes? This thing is getting crazy. Now the feds are training their sights on bulb onions, scallions, cilantro, serrano peppers, and jalapeños grown in and shipped from Mexico. According to UPI, the FDA is planning to put a halt on all such shipments starting today.
The FDA issued the warning on tomatoes on June 2, and between then and now nearly 900 more salmonella cases have been reported. Does it sound like this situation is under control? I don't think so.
This whole saga has been embarrassing for the CDC and the FDA, worrisome for restaurant customers, problematic for restaurant and grocery store owners, and potentially devastating for growers and processors. For the last six weeks, Desert Glory, a Texas-based grower of premium tomatoes that I have bought at my local supermarkets in New York, has been dumping (yes, throwing away) all of its Roma tomatoes because it can't get get FDA clearance for them.
One thing that's readily apparent is that the FDA doesn't require growers or distributors to be able to trace the origin of every piece of fruit and vegetable they handle. We have the technology to do just that—simple stickers.
This situation is confusing, anxiety-provoking, and dangerous for serious eaters everywhere. It feels like the FDA and the CDC are caught up in a shell game they don't seem to be able to win. Can't anybody here play this game? Apparently not.