A red-faced Food and Drug Administration now admits that tomatoes were not the cause of a nationwide salmonella outbreak.
The culprit, apparently, is Mexican-grown jalapeno peppers. But the agency responsible for ensuring the safety of 80 percent of the nation's food supply still isn't sure of the source of the food poisoning, months after it began.
The earliest-known victim got sick on April 10. In May, four cases of salmonella poisoning showed up in Pennsylvania, including people in Bucks and Lancaster Counties. On June 7, the FDA issued its warning about tomatoes, and many local groceries pulled them from produce aisles. Fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's and Taco Bell stopped serving tomatoes.
By this month, more than 1,200 people in 43 states had been sickened, the worst such outbreak in a decade. And now the FDA says, essentially, "Oops."
This episode is only the latest in a string of examples of the FDA's falling down in its mission to protect U.S. consumers. It's all the more reason for Congress to proceed with beefing up the agency's food-inspection capabilities.
If the FDA were doing its detective work effectively, it would benefit business owners, too. Just ask people in the agriculture industry who got blamed erroneously for the salmonella outbreak.
The all-clear for tomatoes comes too late for some growers, mainly in Florida, who lost more than $100 million worth of their crops. Farmers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware luckily were cleared of suspicion early in the crisis. In New Jersey, the tomato crop last year was worth about $24 million.
The FDA's failure to pinpoint quickly the source of the outbreak is having a "cry wolf" effect, too. Now that the agency says jalapeno peppers are to blame, some people aren't buying it. Grocers and distributors in California, for example, are ignoring the warning and selling jalapenos as usual. The FDA says the one tainted pepper it found was grown in Mexico, but investigators aren't sure where it was contaminated.
In 2004, the Bush administration weakened regulations on tracing food supplies at the behest of industry. This year, the administration finally reversed course and asked Congress to increase funding for the FDA to better monitor food supplies. Consumers and food producers need more reliable safety regulations, and legislation pending in Congress would provide it.
A House bill, for example, would require the FDA and the Agriculture Department to implement a system to trace food quickly from the store to the grower. Another measure would give the FDA more authority to bar imported foods that don't meet U.S. standards.
The results of ineffective monitoring and regulation have hurt the public far too often in recent years. Food producers should support tighter regulation for their own good, as well as the benefit to consumers.