(Sept. 12, 9:20 a.m.) COLLEGE PARK, Md. — If the evidence doesn’t fit, food safety officials should acquit tomatoes as a source of the Salmonella Saintpaul pathogen in the now-concluded massive foodborne illness outbreak, one industry leader asked Food and Drug Administration officials here Sept. 11.

At the end of an 1 ½-hour meeting, Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association President Tom Stenzel thanked FDA officials here for their willingness to meet with attendees of the Washington Public Policy Conference and answer questions about the salmonella outbreak traceback investigation and the agency’s oversight of produce safety issues.

Stenzel also asked agency officials to reevaluate the evidence that in June linked tomatoes to the outbreak that sickened more than a 1,400 people. Federal officials eventually found jalapeno and serrano peppers with the pathogen but never established hard evidence that proved the link with tomatoes.

“I really, really, really ask the agency to join in a reassessment that tomatoes were ever involved in this outbreak,” Stenzel said at end of the session in an auditorium at the agency’s College Park facility.

“It’s a rigorous debate, it’s a scientific debate, it’s not wishful thinking on our part,” Stenzel said. “I think there will be a rigorous scientific debate whether the initial epidemiological evidence was good science, now that we do have hard evidence, microbiological evidence, of peppers on a particular farm.”

Stenzel argued, from United Fresh’s perspective, that there seems to be “no logical way” that tomatoes were involved in the outbreak. “I urge the FDA in particular, don’t feel compelled by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) or New Mexico’s initial assessment. I think the agency has a lot riding on this.”

Stenzel’s request came after nearly an hour of a frank but cordial question-and-answer session, a session which included numerous questions about the salmonella outbreak investigation.

With the auditorium filled with more than 100 public policy conference attendees, a panel of FDA experts was on hand, and the primary speakers were: William Jones, director of the division of seafood safety in of the Office of Food Safety at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN); Michelle Smith, interdisciplinary scientist with FDA’s Office of Food Safety; Jack Guzewich, senior environmental health scientist in the CFSAN, Amy Green, policy analyst in the Office of Food Safety; and Marjorie Davidson, acting director for the Division of Communication and Education for CFSAN.

During his remarks, Guzewich explained the division of duties between local and state health departments, the CDC and the FDA. He noted that the FDA had more than 50 conference calls with state, local and CDC officials during the outbreak investigation, not to mention communications with the trade and the press.

“It was a very difficult traceback for us ... We had people that didn’t take a break from June to early August,” he said.

Guzewich also talked of the complexity of traceback investigation, including issues like repacking and co-mingling of product complicating efforts.

In terms of consumer advisories, FDA panelists said the agency is evaluating consumer messaging in terms of what was effective and what wasn’t. In addition, the agency is beginning a serious of meetings to evaluation “lessons learned” from the outbreak investigation.

In his concluding remarks, Jones of the FDA credited agency experts for providing expertise on the leafy greens and tomato safety initiatives, planned updates to the 1998 good agricultural practices, the outbreak investigations process and the agency’s interaction with consumers and the press.

“There are lots of questions that remain unanswered and a lot more areas to get to,” Moore said. “For all these discussions, we do share many of the same concerns,” he said, pledging continued dialogue with industry.