(Aug. 1, 12:55 p.m.) Produce industry leaders told lawmakers that federal health authorities could have improved the prolonged Salmonella Saintpaul investigation, targeting the Food and Drug Administration.

A July 31 House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing focused on lessons learned and industry consequences of the long investigation.

Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., said no one was in charge of the uncoordinated investigation, and that it didn’t move forward in a logical and expeditious manner.

“There was a bias, I believe, in terms that ‘we must prove it was tomatoes,’ because that is what the CDC said, with their epidemiological evidence,” he said.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson criticized the FDA for not working closely with state inspectors.

“One of the things we noticed very early on, when the outbreak took place in Texas and New Mexico and began to go north of there, we were selling tomatoes out of Florida all over the Southern United States and all over Florida but we didn’t have sicknesses in Florida,” he said. “We were suspicious right then that Florida-grown tomatoes were not a part of this problem from the very beginning.

Before making a foodborne illness announcement, the FDA should seek commodity harvest data to minimize the guesswork and limit the number of growers implicated in any outbreak, said A.G. Kawamura, California agriculture secretary.

“Is this system broken, or does it need a tune-up?” he asked. “I would submit today that this system needs a tune-up using the tools we have today. We also have the very important desire that our producers that are not implicated in an outbreak are not damaged. We encourage a better dialogue between FDA, states, growers, handlers and retailers to identify good agricultural practices at all levels of the food chain.”

Ed Beckman, president of California Tomato Farmers, Fresno, and Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange, explainned how the two leading tomato-producing states developed rules to ensure safe handling.

Brown encouraged the FDA to expand its Virginia and Florida tomato safety initiative nationally.

“Those kinds of initiatives would encourage FDA and CDC to develop improved risk communication tools for future outbreaks, to increase the understanding of actual risk probability in suspected items and the risk posed to the public,” Brown said. “A good risk analysis would facilitate a greater understanding for all concerned and such improved communications would improve public health rather than (create) public hysteria.”

Beckman said making Florida and California standards national, and including small farms, could help prevent future outbreaks.

“Though California was never associated directly with the outbreak, our members have lost millions in sales in domestic and international markets due to the broad warnings related to tomatoes,” he said. “Our concern is this may happen again, putting the consumers at risk and that we may see a prolonged investigation that would further weaken trust in our food supply.”