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U.S. Rep tells FDA to pick up the pace of outbreak investigation

Rep-Rosa-DeLauroA congresswoman from Connecticut told the FDA “American families should not be dying from the food they eat” and asked the agency to step up its investigation of an ongoing seven-month Salmonella outbreak that has killed six people.

“Since this outbreak (which began in July 2015) was first reported on Sept. 4, 2015, there have been a total of 888 illnesses, 191 hospitalizations and six deaths across 39 states from Salmonella-tainted cucumbers,” U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat representing the 3rd District in Connecticut, told the Food and Drug Administration’s Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff in a letter dated Feb. 5.

“I find it troubling that 106 of these illnesses were reported after the recalled cucumbers should have no longer been available on store shelves — strongly pointing to a continued contamination somewhere along the supply chain. …Given the prevalence of this outbreak, it is clear the manner in which we have addressed this problem today is inadequate.”

An FDA spokesman said the agency received the letter and is in communication with DeLauro, who is the ranking House member on the appropriations committee that decides FDA’s budget.

“The FDA takes Congresswoman DeLauro’s concerns seriously and remains committed to working directly with the congresswoman to address the concerns raised in her letter to Dr. Ostroff,” the FDA spokesman said Feb. 5.

Andrew & Williamson cucumbers

Company actions to date

San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce Inc. recalled its Limited Edition branded cucumbers, grown in Mexico and distributed in the United States, on Sept. 5, 2015. Custom Produce Sales, which bought cucumbers from A&W for distribution under the Fat Boy brand, recalled its cukes Sept. 11.

As of 12:45 a.m. Feb. 6, Andrew & Williamson website’s most recent post about the outbreak was from Sept. 25. However, Dave Murray, a partner at Andrew & Williamson, said on Feb. 5 that company officials “are fully cooperating with health officials to ensure we are doing everything possible to learn how this could have happened.”

Murray said cucumbers are not being grown on the farm associated with the outbreak. The California packing facility remains closed. “We also continue to work with food safety experts to guide our activities and efforts to prevent this from happening again,” he said. Some of the efforts he reported were:

  • Contacting all customers;
  • Shutting down all harvest and packing operations at the California facility;
  • Opening fields and facilities to government inspectors from the United States and Mexico;
  • Thoroughly evaluating cucumber farming and packing operations;
  • Reviewing all control processes;
  • Completely scrubbing and cleaning the facility, which remains closed;
  • Bringing in outside food safety experts, including researcher Trevor Suslow from University of California-Davis, to help us evaluate our systems;
  • Enhancing food safety systems on farms and in facilities upon the advice of these food safety experts;
  • Sharing what we have learned with other farmers and shippers whenever possible and whenever we are asked; and
  • Continually communicating with federal and state health officials.

On Sept 14 the FDA slapped an import alert on cucumbers from Andrew & Williamson’s growing operation in Mexico, which means cucumbers from Rancho Don Juanito de R.L. de C.V. in Baja, Mexico, cannot come across the U.S. border until further notice.

People continue to develop new illnesses

Despite the recalls and import alert, health officials continue to see new infections caused by the relatively unusual Salmonella poona and its specific strains found on the A&W cucumbers.

Outbreak map

On this map, the states shown in white are the only states that have not reported illnesses in the Salmonella poona outbreak linked to whole, fresh cucumbers. As of Jan. 21, the CDC reported 888 outbreak victims.

From Nov. 19, 2015, through Jan. 21 this year 50 people from 16 states were confirmed to have infections from the Salmonella poona found on the cucumbers, according to a Jan. 26 update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During that time period the outbreak spread to Tennessee, bringing the total number of states involved to 39.

“The number of (new) reported illnesses has declined substantially since the peak of illnesses in August and September; however, it has not returned to the number of reported illnesses that would be expected to be seen — about one every month. The investigation into the source of these illnesses is ongoing,” the CDC reported.

DeLauro wants more.

“This is a public health crisis, and the FDA needs to do everything within its power to expeditiously identify the ongoing source of the Salmonella outbreak, including: halting all importation, processing and distribution activities by the firms implicated in the outbreak; working with food retailers to ensure proper clean up and decontamination; and recalling any associated contaminated foods,” DeLauro said in her letter to FDA.

Federal and state agencies are investigation whether cross-contamination within the distribution chain could explain recent illnesses, the CDC reported in its January update.

Possible contributing factors to cross-contamination include trucks and shipping containers or pallets used to transport the original contaminated cucumbers, DeLauro contends.

Some of those concerns could be addressed when the FDA publishes a new transportation rule for foods. The final rule, mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 and referred to as “Rule 7: Sanitary Transportation of Human and Animal Food,” is due in March.

Murray said Andrew & Williamson, with the victims in mind, has made a donation to the non-profit group STOP Foodborne Illness in support of it’s work to create an educational packet about foodborne illness to be distributed to every pediatric emergency room and hospital in the U.S. More recently, A&W made a five-year funding commitment to the Center for Produce Safety, a non-profit foundation focused exclusively on providing the produce industry and government science-based information on how to enhance produce safety.

 

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