Q: Is there now a question that tomatoes may not actually be the incubator of the salmonella? That it might be some other type of produce?
A: We continue to see a strong association with consumption of tomatoes and from the start what we said is that many of the people ate tomatoes in dishes such as salsa and guacamole so that we have always been looking both at tomatoes and at exposure to other ingredients in the dishes…
…we continue to keep an open mind as to the possible source of these outbreaks as does FDA.
The above exchange between Tiffany Hsu, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and Dr. Patricia Griffin, CDC’s Chief of the Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch, is positively shocking.
Let us look at what CDC actually said:
Initially, on June 2 2008, the CDC was relying on the work of others and made that clear in its pronouncement…
An epidemiologic investigation conducted by the New Mexico and Texas Departments of Health and the Indian Health Service using interviews comparing foods eaten by ill and well persons has identified consumption of raw tomatoes as the likely source of the illnesses in New Mexico and Texas. The specific type and source of tomatoes are under investigation; however, preliminary data suggest that large tomatoes, including Roma and red round are the source.
But by June 12, 2008, CDC started issuing the statements under its own name, without qualification:
An epidemiologic investigation comparing foods eaten by ill and well persons has identified consumption of raw tomatoes as the likely source of the illnesses. The specific type and source of tomatoes is under investigation; however, the data suggest that illnesses are linked to consumption of raw red plum, red Roma, and round red tomatoes, and products containing these raw tomatoes.
If this wasn’t enough to establish that CDC had determined that there was a tomato linkage to the illness, the CDC statement went on to say this:
Only 3 persons infected with this strain of Salmonella Saintpaul were identified in the country during the same period in 2007. The previous rarity of this strain and the distribution of illnesses in all U.S. regions suggest that the implicated tomatoes are distributed throughout much of the country.
Although there is a brief reference to “products containing these raw tomatoes,” the clear implication is that the products are a problem only because they contain the tomatoes.
This perception was clearly backed up by the FDA consumer advisories, which never said a word about not eating guacamole or salsa — only not eating products made with implicated tomatoes.
It really seemed that Dr. Griffin has been genuinely hesitant to pin this outbreak on tomatoes.
But now, she decides to speak out only after an industry has been crushed, its employees left poorer and with less certain futures, consumers have been scared to death and were led to throw out food at a time when food prices make the daily headlines. Her position at CDC requires not merely technical ability but political courage and she should have issued a statement early in the process saying that she was not convinced that it was tomatoes.
Now if they find it was not tomatoes, she will have to live her life knowing the damage she caused because she lacked the courage to speak up publicly for her convictions.