Federal officials announced last week that all tomatoes currently on the U.S. market are safe to eat. But they admit they still don’t know what’s causing a salmonella outbreak that has affected thousands over the past three months. Jalapeno and other peppers remain under investigation. Tomatoes had been identified in early June as the likely source of one of the largest food-borne illness outbreaks in the past decade. There were more than 1200 confirmed illnesses linked to the outbreak. While new cases are still being found, the rate has slowed, according to the CDC.
The FDA says it’s possible tomatoes caused some illnesses and that it’s impossible to prove that they didn’t cause any. But not a single contaminated tomato has been found. FDA tested 1,700 samples without finding traces of the outbreak. Apparently, this is not unusual: In half of all produce disease outbreaks, health investigators have never determined what made the people sick. The short shelf life of most fresh fruits and vegetables means it’s less likely the items will still be in people’s refrigerators when investigators arrive. And the complexity of the produce distribution system can be a large impediment.
Industry leaders are not so sure. They worry it was not a failure of traceability, but a lack of imagination. When the trace-back did not support the tomato hypothesis, investigators should have more quickly tried alternative hypotheses, they say.
In any event, a broad coalition of growers, distributors, restaurants, and retailers have been working on a national tracking system. The current proposal would utilize a global trade item number (GTIN). Every part of the distribution chain would be required to use a bar code encoded with the GTIN and the grower or shipper who produced it, the production lot it was part of, and the date it was packed or harvested. If the GTIN system were to be adopted, investigators could quickly determine where a box of fruit or vegetables came from, and thus whether it needs to be isolated or recalled.
This ability to better link up the product may impact product liability litigation: cause in fact is a basic element requiring plaintiffs to show that the product of the defendant caused his or her injury. But industry recognizes that it is in everyone’s interest to be able to trace back the source as quickly as possible and thus to take immediate action that will limit the number of people possibly affected. And the inability to quickly trace back may have significant financial impact: The tomato warning, issued for varieties of fresh tomatoes, likely cost the industry millions of dollars, according to trade associations.
The L.A. Times recently reported on an AP poll that finds that nearly half of consumers have changed their eating and buying habits in the past six months because they’re afraid they could get sick by eating contaminated food. Also, 86% of those polled said produce should be labeled so it can be tracked through layers of processors, packers and shippers, all the way back to the farm. The poll found that 80 percent of Americans said they would support new federal standards for fresh produce.
The Professors at the Mass Tort Litigation Blog have posted on this as well.