(July 31, 12:02 p.m.) MONTEREY, Calif. — As bad as it has been on the fresh produce industry, this summer’s salmonella outbreak could have been much worse.

Members of the July 26 Town Hall on Salmonella Outbreak panel at the Produce Marketing Association Foodservice Conference and Expo said in this outbreak, government agencies and produce industry representatives had unprecedented communication.

The Food and Drug Administration tried some different things after learning from some of the mistakes during the spinach E. coli outbreak in the fall of 2006 and other previous outbreaks.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for PMA, said while outreach by FDA has been much better, the outbreak first linked to tomatoes is much tougher than spinach because this recent outbreak is much more widespread.

Sherri McGarry, center emergency coordinator for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at FDA, said the investigators’ goal was to narrow the search as quickly as possible. While there was a strong link between those sickened and tomatoes, repacking and commingling of tomatoes made many of the traceback methods useless.

“Tomatoes are the most complex of any (outbreak) we’ve ever encountered,” she said.

Ed Beckman, president of the California Tomato Farmers, agreed that communication was good during the outbreak, but tomato growers were still frustrated by several obstacles.

He said in 2004, the FDA sent an advisory to the tomato industry to improve food safety, so California and Florida growers came up with stringent guidelines. But they were made irrelevant by the FDA’s consumer advisory to avoid eating tomatoes in the early stages of the outbreak.

Beckman said FDA has some confidentiality laws that prevented better traceback.

On traceback, Parker Booth, president of Ace Tomato Co., Manteca, said the tomato industry caught a lot of bad publicity for its lack of traceback, but Ace Tomato can go one step forward, one step back, and find that information as quickly as 10 minutes.

He said the irony of the FDA advisory against tomatoes is that his company and many others moved away from suppliers with stringent food safety measures to suppliers who didn’t.

Fellow panelist U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., said consumers need one agency to oversee outbreaks like this rather than the three that do it now, which confuse everyone involved.

“FDA now says ‘there’s a fire burning, and later we’re going to tell you where it is,’” Farr said.

Farr advised those in attendance to become more familiar with their congressmen and congresswomen.

“We listen to both sides (of the outbreak issue),” he said. “Our contract is up for renewal in November, so we’ll listen.”

Panel: Salmonella outbreak could have been worse
U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., left, mulls over ideas with Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, and Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for PMA, after a town hall-style meeting July 26 at the PMA Foodservice Conference and Exposition in Monterey, Calif.