WASHINGTON - As the government struggles to trace another bacterial outbreak, this time in tomatoes, congressional investigators are attacking federal health officials for failing to follow up on recent promises to improve food safety.
The Salmonella outbreak in tomatoes has sickened 167 people in 17 states and triggered a new round of criticism of the government's food safety efforts, which have been under attack for months after contamination in spinach, lettuce, peanut butter and pet food.
"It just epitomizes the problem," said Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who will chair a House hearing this morning on the Food and Drug Administration's food protection plans. "What has it taken for them to realize it's a problem? A couple of outbreaks."
At the hearing, the Government Accountability Office will report that the FDA hasn't taken steps to begin implementing the food safety plan it issued last November in response to a string of food scares.
"As foodborne illness outbreaks continue, FDA is missing valuable opportunities to reassure Congress and the public that it is doing all it can to protect the nation's food supply," said the report by the investigative arm of Congress.
The latest outbreak is the 13th involving tomatoes since 1990. Investigators have ruled out growers in seven countries and 24 states, including Maryland, giving consumers the all-clear to eat tomatoes from those places. No one from Maryland has been reported sick.
The likely source of the tainted tomatoes could be among growers in Mexico and parts of Florida, because they supplied them to the United States during April and May, when people reported falling ill, according to Dr. Douglas Powell, a food safety specialist at Kansas State University. Tomatoes from counties in northern and southern Florida are safe, according to federal health officials.
Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for foods, said yesterday that the hunt for the source is "getting very close." Still, officials were forced to explain that delays were caused by the need to review medical files of the sick, pore over tomato supply records and investigate growers from Mexico to central Florida.
"Tomatoes don't typically show up with a bar code stamped on them," Acheson said.
Dr. Ian Williams, chief of the Outbreak Net team at the Centers for Disease Control, urged patience, because "the chances of us finding a contaminated tomato sitting in somebody's refrigerator is very low."
Acheson said during a conference call with reporters that the FDA has been studying the causes of tomato contamination over the past year in an effort to improve prevention efforts. But he acknowledged that the agency hasn't upgraded its computer systems, a key step in its food protection plan for speeding up investigations.
"We're actually working on that now, but we're not at that point where we've been able to implement any specific changes," Acheson said. "Clearly this situation has illustrated the importance of pursuing that with maximum vigor."
Stupak, who chairs the Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee looking into FDA's food safety efforts, said the problem is that agency investigators are relying on computers that can't communicate with each other, while other records are stored in boxes, not electronically.
"It really is pathetic," he said.
The FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of 80 percent of the country's food supply, almost $470 billion in fruits, vegetables, seafood and other products. The Department of Agriculture is responsible for meat, poultry and egg products.
The FDA's food safety efforts became a hot-button issue in late 2006 with a bacterial outbreak in bagged spinach that killed three people and sickened 204 across Maryland and 25 other states. Concern intensified with the recall of Taco Bell lettuce, Peter Pan peanut butter and pet food.
FDA officials said the November reform plan would enable the agency to better predict, prevent and respond to outbreaks, but that same month the agency's Science Board issued a report saying the agency lacked the staff, computer systems and funds to ensure food safety.
Later, the board estimated that the agency's food budget would need $755 million more by 2013 to adequately carry out its responsibilities. The board recommended $128 million in extra food funding in fiscal 2009.
The FDA has "been hampered very much by an administration that hasn't supported them," said Michael R. Taylor, a former agency official now at George Washington University's School of Public Health.
FDA officials have known for a decade that they needed to bolster efforts to reduce bacterial outbreaks in fresh produce, Taylor said, "but we haven't moved the ball forward in terms of doing the science or developing the standards to prevent foodborne illnesses, and so here we go again."
This week, the Bush administration moved to head off criticism by announcing it would propose $275 million more - including $125 million for food protection - for FDA's budget for the coming fiscal year.
In making the announcement, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt sought to blame Congress for failing to grant FDA additional powers to improve food safety.
But Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvanian responded by criticizing the administration for not putting the extra money into the FDA's current budget.
The administration, Specter wrote in his own hand at the bottom of a letter to Leavitt, "is drastically hindering necessary immediate relief by denying the funding for over 9 months. FDA needs this money now to save lives."