By Amanda Gardner
THURSDAY, June 12 (HealthDay News) -- With the ongoing outbreak of salmonella-contaminated tomatoes as a backdrop, Congressional investigators said Thursday that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has failed to meet its own stated goals of protecting the nation's food supply.
Investigators for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) were scheduled to tell the House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday that the FDA has done little to implement its "food protection plan," which the agency released in November, The New York Times reported.
"In March 2008, FDA officials indicated that a progress report on actions taken to implement the 'food protection plan' would be issued in April 2008. In May, FDA officials told us that they had prepared a draft progress report, but as of June 4, 2008, FDA had not made this report public.
The food protection plan calls for establishing a risk-based inspection system of food plants, "which is particularly important as the numbers of food firms have increased while inspections have decreased," the accountability office report said, according to the Times.
The release of the GAO report comes at the same time that U.S. health officials said they were zeroing in on a source for the recent outbreak of salmonella from contaminated tomatoes.
"The question is where specifically did these tomatoes come from," Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said during a teleconference Wednesday. "We're getting very close, but at this point, today, we don't know for sure where they did come from."
Parts of Florida are still under investigation, although northern Florida, which was not harvesting at the time the outbreaks began, has been ruled out as a source for the contamination.
Several other states have been excluded but, beyond that, Acheson said, "anywhere else is essentially open for question in terms of whether that is the source."
The number of people affected by the outbreak remains essentially flat, with 167 people from 17 states infected and 23 people hospitalized. The death of a man in Texas who died is still being investigated, Dr. Ian Williams, chief of the OutbreakNet Team at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during the teleconference. The man had cancer and consumed pico de gallo, which is made with tomatoes.
The actual number of people infected is likely to be many more, Williams said. "Many people with salmonella infection don't have stool specimen tests," he said.
On Tuesday, the warning about salmonella-contaminated tomatoes was expanded to include the entire country.
The outbreak was first identified in May with a cluster of approximately 20 people in New Mexico infected with salmonella which had the same genetic footprint. Another cluster was then identified in Texas.
Officials were then able to trace the outbreak to contaminated tomatoes.
The particular type of salmonella involved, Salmonella Saintpaul, is virulent and relatively rare, accounting for only about 400 reported cases annually in the United States, Williams said.
Acheson reiterated that the outbreak of salmonella contamination seems to be linked with certain types of raw, red tomatoes and products containing these tomatoes. In particular, the agency said, raw, red plum tomatoes, raw, red Roma tomatoes and raw, round red tomatoes should be avoided at this time.
Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached appear to be safe. But all tomatoes should be washed before eating, officials advised.
And, until a source for the outbreak is identified, consumers need to employ a little detective work before consuming tomatoes or tomato products.
"The best advice right now is to be extremely careful in trying to find out exactly where the tomatoes they're purchasing are from," said Tony Corbo, legislative representative for Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit consumer group that works to ensure clean water and safe food.