Monday, August 18, 2008
FRESNO, Calif. - Federal inspectors at U.S. border crossings repeatedly turned back filthy, disease-ridden shipments of peppers from Mexico in the months before a salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,400 people was finally traced to Mexican chilies.
Yet no larger action was taken. Food and Drug Administration officials insisted as recently as last week that they were surprised by the outbreak because Mexican peppers had not been spotted as a problem before.
But an Associated Press analysis of FDA records found that peppers and chilies were consistently the top Mexican crop rejected by border inspectors for the last year.
Since January alone, 88 shipments of fresh and dried chilies were turned away. Ten percent were contaminated with salmonella. In the last year, 8 percent of the 158 intercepted shipments of fresh and dried chilies had salmonella.
On Friday, Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's food safety chief, told reporters peppers were not a cause for concern before they were implicated in the salmonella outbreak.
"We have not typically seen problems with peppers," Acheson said. "Our import sampling is typically focused on areas where we know we've got problems or we've seen problems in the past, which is why we're now increasing our sampling for peppers."
On Monday, the FDA said Acheson's comment was in relation to outbreaks or illness associated with Mexican peppers, not the rejection of pepper shipments at the borders. Calls to the FDA seeking elaboration were not immediately returned.
Still, food-safety advocates question why the agency did not pay more attention to the peppers being stopped at the border and why it took the nation's largest foodborne illness outbreak for the agency to ratchet up its screening of companies known for shipping dirty chilies.
"If the fact that they were showing up on problem lists for a year doesn't make them high-risk, I don't know what does," said Ami Gadhia, policy counsel with Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. "If it's across the board, then that's a systemic problem that FDA needs to be able to nimbly respond to."
Reminds me of that memo Condi got titled: "Bin Laden determined to strike inside the United States".