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Editorial: Tomato Tragedy Shows Need For Technology Upgrade

This story was written by Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan

A current outbreak of salmonella resulting from contaminated tomatoes has caused 383 reported illnesses, forced restaurants to remove the fruit from their menus, left government agencies pointing fingers at each other and consumers desperately trying to figure out exactly what a round tomato is. The tomato scare is the latest in a series of food-contamination issues, and it has many questioning the safety of the food supply. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has asked Congress to grant the FDA an aditional $275 million next year.

The FDA regulates $417 billion in domestic food annually. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for monitoring meat, poultry, and eggs, approximately 20 percent of the food supply; the remaining 80 percent falls to the FDA.

Unfortunately the USDA has roughly five times as many inspectors.

According to Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt, the increase in funding proposed by the Bush administration would allow the agency to open foreign offices, as well as accommodating greater inspections of food and medical products.

Such an increase in funding would facilitate the proper implementation of the FDA's food-protection plan, developed in response to an outbreak of E. coli contaminated spinach in 2006. The plan has three core elements: prevention, intervention, and response. In the prevention stage, the agency looks to promote increased corporate responsibility in the prevention of food-borne illness, identify vulnerabilities and assess risk, and to expand effective mitigation measures. Intervention focuses on inspections and samplings based on risk and enhancing risk-based surveillance. Finally, the response stage looks to improve immediate response to an outbreak through greater risk communications to the public, industry, and other stakeholders.

Seems simple enough, but many of these implementations require legislative changes to the FDA's authority, such as empowering the agency to issue a mandatory recall of food products when voluntary recalls are not effective.

A larger budget and more regulatory power are a start, but what the FDA truly needs to address is the new demands of the global food market by focusing the increase in funding on safety and inspection technology. Currently, the agency uses computers that cannot communicate with each other, and much of the agency's information is not stored electronically.

It is imperative for the agency to work with the food industry to develop and implement a system to track food from the farm to the kitchen table. Under the current system, it is immensely difficult for consumers to acquire adequate information regarding their food. Even when the source of an outbreak is detected, consumers have no way of knowing where their produce originated, unless they shop at farmers' markets. This is part of the problem.

Produce that was considered seasonal can now be found in supermarkets year round. The surge in volume and complexity of imported foods needed to make such convenience possible exhausts the bounds of the FDA's method of handling imports. Another example of convenience taxing the agency involves prepared bags of salad. Before, when one head of lettuce was contaminated, the resulting illness affected only one family. Now, contaminated heads of lettuce may be processed with thousands of others before they are placed into packaged bags of salad. The risk of illness now has the potential to affect hundreds.

An increase in funding is necessary, but the FDA must be more proactive in the distribution of such funds. Technology capable of dealing with modern import trends, educating the public of the preparation needs of prepackaged foods and increased support of local grower are necessary factors for the welfare of farms, the health of consumers and the safety of the food supply.

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