The Checkout

Not-so-live blogging House Food Safety Hearing No. Two

Annys Shin

Apologies for the delayed post. My air card died just as the produce industry was piling on the FDA and CDC.

If you want to listen along, you can go to the House Energy and Commerce Committee Web site.

The theme of today's hearing is "Lessons Learned" from the salmonella outbreak. So in that vein, I thought I'd write up my top five lessons learned.

1. Outbreaks don't respect state borders.
I wrote Wednesday about a Colorado woman, Cheryl Grubbs, whose husband was an outbreak victim. She had trouble getting the attention of her local health officials partly because Colorado hasn't had many cases, less than 20 so far. However, Grubbs lives in the Four Corners area where Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado meet. The Arizona and New Mexico side of Four Corners has been the "heartland" of the outbreak, as CDC's Robert Tauxe put it. But with the response she got, you would have thought she lived in Hawaii.

Her attorney, Bill Marler, said her experience is not uncommon:

"We have see the same thing in several outbreaks. In the Dole spinach outbreak, we or clients had to hire private labs to link two deaths to the outbreak when local, state and national health officials could not be bothered.Whether it is a lack of funding or sheer laziness, ignoring the public and the publics' health puts all of us in danger. When, not if, a bioterrorism event occurs, ill people like the Grubbs will be our 'early warning system' and we [darn] will better be paying attention."

2. Everyone's state stinks except for yours and mine.
The different capacity of states to detect and investigate outbreaks came up frequently. But lawmakers took pains not to slam specific states, especially if they had a rep in the room. The only person who strayed from this unspoken etiquette was Dr. Michael Osterholm, the former state epidemiologist for Minnesota and widely recognized as one of the top disease detectives in the country. He dinged Texas for taking as long as 15 days to confirm a salmonella case, DNA fingerprint it and send the info to epidemiologists--a process that in Minnesota takes three days.

3. Minnesota rocks.
Osterholm can get away with saying that because he helped build the foodborne detection and investigation system in Minnesota, which is considered among the best there is. Minn's state epidemiologist Kirk Smith is testifying right now about how his state was able to identify a distributor in Texas that supplied tainted jalapenos eaten by a cluster of sick restaurant patrons in the Twin Cities area in less than 10 days of confirming its first cases. That tip led FDA to Texas and to the farm in Mexico where they found the contaminated irrigation water.

4. It takes a village to find bacteria.
One thing that hasn't come out in the hearing is how many people it takes to do these multi state investigations. CDC was kind enough to let me talk to two Epidemic Intelligence Officers (EIS) involved in the salmonella probe. (EIS is sort of like FBI agents for infectious disease. One EIS officer named Julie was sent to North Carolina where she spent about two weeks in a county health department office with a stack of questionnaires. She called something like 70 people who ate at a restaurant linked to the outbreak. Another EIS officer named Ryan was sent to rural Missouri where he spent about 10 days meeting face-to-face with locals who ate at another restaurant linked to the outbreak. Working along side them were state and local health workers. Multiply this effort a dozen times and you get some inkling of how sprawling these investigations are.

5. Eliza Doolittle had it right.
Yesterday, I was surprised that industry, lawmakers and even the most strident FDA critics made a point of saying Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's top food safety official, was not the problem. Part of the reason is Acheson stays cool under pressure. And it doesn't hurt to have a pleasing Britishy accent. The Produce Marketing Association deployed their own BBC-inflected spokesman, Bryan Silverman. I think British accents should be mandatory from all committee witnesses.

By Annys Shin |  July 31, 2008; 12:44 PM ET Annys Shin
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