(Aug. 11) The media attention and high-profile consumer fears that erupted after a salmonella outbreak should serve as a wake-up call to those who think food safety procedures are over-emphasized.

It should also show also what the industry should do to prevent exacerbating a food safety crisis.
More than 300 people got sick after eating tainted fresh deli sandwiches and wraps at a western Pennsylvania convenience store chain.

A single unopened pack of sliced roma tomatoes was identified early in the investigation as the source of the salmonella outbreak. Longtimefresh-cut fruit and vegetable processor Coronet Foods Inc., Wheeling, W.Va., supplied the tomatoes.

While food safety procedures alone didn’t keep Coronet out of the spotlight, they likely proved useful in helping the company quickly investigate and trace the pack that a state agriculture department identified as testing positive for salmonella.

Trouble was, the identification was misleading. The strain of salmonella blamed for causing the illnesses was different from the one that tested positive at Coronet.

Coronet announced those results and additional environmental tests at its processing facility. That development forced the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to revise its earlier statement linking the processor with the illnesses.

The company acted properly in the situation, announcing a day before the Food and Drug Administration issued a foodborne illness alert that it had stopped buying and processing roma tomatoes, quarantined any remaining inventory of romas, resanitized the tomato cutting line and notified its roma growers and suppliers of the potential problem.

The positive news of the negative tests, however, wasn’t enough to prevent the legal eagles from knocking at the door. Two Pennsylvania couples sued Coronet, claiming they were sickened by the Coronet-supplied tomatoes.

Perhaps, in the fray of national news, the couples didn’t hear about the erroneous Coronet sample.

Jim Gorny, vice president of technology and regulatory affairs for the Alexandria, Va.-based International Fresh-cut Produce Association, questioned the attention the Pennsylvania Agriculture Department called to the first sample.

“They really didn’t have a smoking gun,” he said early in the investigation. “They’re apples and oranges, with two different salmonella strains.”

IFPA remained in close contact with the state epidemiologist to receive the latest developments in the breaking story.

Still, Coronet remained concerned about distributing a product tainted with a salmonella strain that isn’t known to cause human illness.

Watching the mainstream media, one got the impression that a food recall was about to occur and another major food crisis was happening.

“The ship’s moving too quickly with just enough information to cause problems and to not inform,” said Donna Garren, vice president of scientific and technical affairs for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C.

United, in conjunction with IFPA and the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., moved to calm public fears and reassure the produce and foodservice industries that there was no crisis.

Information, Garren said, was being distributed, but the quality was lacking.

One produce distributor told Garren that CNN showed a regular tomato instead of a roma when reporting the incident.

That wasn’t terribly surprising, considering that during the November hepatitis A scare that indicted green onions for causing sickness at a Pennsylvania Chi-Chi’s restaurant, many of the cable news channels omitted the word “green” from onions in their scrolling headlines that appeared at the bottom of the television screen, industry people say.

“They’re way ahead of the actual investigation,” Garren said about the media.

That pace of spot news reporting tends to influence the investigation and food interviews the FDA conducted. That type of information clouds the jury pool and unfairly puts commodities in a negative light.

The story will progress as the fresh-cut processor and FDA investigators review further upstream, to see where the tomatoes were contaminated with the less harmful salmonella strain and to learn how the people really got sick at the Pennsylvania convenience store.

United and IFPA were advising industry people to communicate to their customers that it wasn’t appropriate to speculate on the villain in the early part of the investigation until all the facts were in.

Though the impulse is for the industry to do something and respond quickly, it is difficult to sit tight and wait for the FDA to do its job.

But that’s what the industry must do in these type of situations if it wants the right answers and doesn’t want to unnecessarily tarnish the image of a commodity.