Opinion: the dire state of FDA recall announcement delays

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Opinion: the dire state of FDA recall announcement delays

By Marler Clark attorney and food safety advocate Bill Marler

On Aug. 16, 2012, we learned that a Salmonella outbreak in Kentucky had sickened at least 44 people.  The source of the outbreak went unidentified until the following day, when Kentucky public health officials announced that at least 50 Kentuckians had become sick with Salmonella infections, and two had died after eating cantaloupe.

Lab testing and epidemiologic evidence pointed to a southwestern Indiana farm as the source of the Salmonella-contaminated cantaloupes, but Kentucky health officials did not name the farm in their announcement.  Neither did Indiana, which released its own Salmonella outbreak announcement shortly after Kentucky, stating that 14 Indiana residents were part of the same outbreak. And, it's not like cantaloupes had not caused problems in the past.

Throughout the late afternoon and early evening hours of Aug. 17, more state public health agencies announced that they, too, had identified Salmonella cases that could be linked to contaminated cantaloupes. And finally, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) waded into the communications stream, announcing that a total of 141 residents of 20 states had become ill with Salmonella infections after eating cantaloupe from an unnamed southwestern Indiana farm.

The farm would go unnamed for another five days.

In the meantime, the Salmonella case-count continued to rise and consumers still had contaminated cantaloupes in their refrigerators.

My firm filed a lawsuit on behalf of a family from Michigan who purchased Salmonella-contaminated cantaloupes from Wal-Mart on Aug. 22. Late that night - about 9 p.m. Pacific and midnight on the East Coast - in what I have found to be typical fashion for our federal public health agencies, the FDA announced the name of the farm that grew the contaminated cantaloupe, posting a recall notice on its website.

The FDA recall notice warned consumers not to eat cantaloupes grown by Chamberlain Farms of Owensville, Indiana, but did not provide much useful information about where the cantaloupes had been distributed, other than naming states we already knew had received the cantaloupes because their public health agencies had reported Salmonella cases.

We had to wait for the Associated Press to get in touch with the attorney for Chamberlain Farms before we knew for certain that the farm had withdrawn its cantaloupes several days prior to the recall notice and that all its retail and wholesale purchasers had complied with the recall.

On Tuesday, the FDA and CDC announced that cantaloupe collected from Chamberlain Farms Produce, Inc., based in Owensville, Indiana, has tested positive for the Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak strain that has so far sickened 178 people from 21 states.

The number of ill persons identified in each state is as follows: Alabama (13), Arkansas (3), California (2), Georgia (3), Illinois (21), Indiana (18), Iowa (7), Kentucky (56), Massachusetts (2), Michigan (6), Minnesota (4), Mississippi (5), Missouri (12), New Jersey (2), North Carolina (3), Ohio (4), Pennsylvania (2), South Carolina (3), Tennessee (6), Texas (2), and Wisconsin (4). 62 ill persons have been hospitalized. Two deaths have been reported in Kentucky.

FDA investigators were at the farm from Aug. 14-16 collecting samples from surface areas and from cantaloupe. So far, joint investigations by state, local, and federal authorities point to cantaloupe from Chamberlain Farms as a source of the outbreak. According to earlier reports, officials were exploring other possible sources and whether other types of melon were involved.

Earlier in the investigation, tests by Kentucky's state public health lab found the outbreak strain in samples from two cantaloupes collected from a retail location.

What about consumers?

Have consumers received enough information from either the farm or government agencies to protect themselves and prevent further illness?

Why was the recall announcement delayed if the farm had already taken steps to remove its cantaloupes from the marketplace?

And, how many illnesses that have not yet been reported could have been prevented if people had known which cantaloupes to avoid a few days earlier?

Perhaps when we stop counting the sick, we can have a discussion on how to protect and inform the public.

Related story: Traceability needs 'stronger deterrents, stronger oversight'


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