Lessons to Be Learned from the 2008 Salmonella Saintpaul Outbreak

Nov 17, 2008

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak of 2008 officially over on August 28, 2008, some three months after it began.  During that time, more than 1,400 persons were reported infected, and if, as suggested by research, this represents an underreporting, the outbreak may have sickened thousands of Americans.  Although CDC and FDA initially pointed in early June to tomatoes as the cause of the outbreak based on epidemiological data, no contaminated tomato was ever found.  In July, CDC and FDA identified jalapeno and serrano peppers as being responsible for illnesses, and the only microbiological evidence of food contaminated by Salmonella Saintpaul was, in fact, found in jalapeno and serrano peppers. However, as a result of the initial identification of tomatoes as the vector for the disease, the tomato industry, a significant sector of this country's agriculture economy, was another major casualty.  Estimates of the economic cost to that industry in Florida alone have been more than $100 million and in Georgia close to $14 million.  A less tangible, but still very real, impact of the outbreak may well be its long-term effect on consumer confidence in fresh produce in general and fresh tomatoes in particular.

Given the human, economic and public-health costs of this recent food borne-illness outbreak, therefore, it is critical to learn from it.  In fact, members of Congress and representatives from the produce industry have called for post-mortem investigations of the outbreak, and senior FDA officials have promised a thorough and transparent accounting of the public-health system's response. This report represents the first extensive and in-depth review of the public record of the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak.  In conducting this review, the Produce Safety Project (PSP), an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts at Georgetown University, has attempted to frame questions that will be critical for any post-mortem analysis to consider and to identify issues that should be addressed.  In doing so, three areas of concern have surfaced:  policy, the public-health system's organization and outbreak response, and its communications with the media and the public.

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information visit the Produce Safety Project's Web site, or visit the Produce Safety Project on PewHealth.org.

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