With concern over food safety mounting in the US, the salmonella outbreak sweeping the tomato sector has shaken consumer confidence - and added fuel to the debate over the effectiveness of the US Food and Drug Administration. Dean Best reports on why a more open FDA is still facing flak.

The tomato salmonella outbreak sweeping across the US comes at a critical time in the debate over food safety in the country.

In recent years, the issue of food safety has become an ever-more pressing concern for US consumers and the tomato scare follows similar incidents that have struck across the country.

News on Tuesday (10 June) that there had been 167 reported cases, including at least 23 hospitalisations, in 17 states of people falling ill from eating tainted tomatoes brought to mind similar recent nationwide recalls over spinach and peanut butter.

Those incidents, as well as the beef E. coli scandal last autumn that led to over 20 million lbs of beef being recalled, and safety scares around food imported into the US, have prompted national discussion over the safety of food and the effectiveness of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

There have been calls for Congress to provide more money to improve the FDA's regulation of the US food supply. In recent days, Congress has been asked to provide the FDA with an additional US$275m in funding for fiscal 2009 to help the agency police the food supply and set up more offices overseas to monitor food before it is shipped to the US.

There is broad agreement that the FDA needs more cash but, for some, reform of the agency is also needed. In April, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair John Dingell released draft proposals for changes to how the FDA regulates the food supply.

The proposals would allow the FDA to order the recall of contaminated foods - currently it can only request recalls - and would establish a group of inspectors to monitor manufacturers every four years. The legislation would also establish a new system of fees to finance the additional oversight, while a comprehensive registry of all food facilities operating in the US or importing food would be created.

Those proposals are still going through Congress but the need for reform of the FDA's practices has been brought into sharp focus during the tomato scare. On the produce front, Dingell's plans also include the proposed introduction of safety standards for fresh produce. Right now, the FDA just issues guidance for companies in this area - and that strategy has faced some fierce criticism this week.

"The Food and Drug Administration deserves any rotten tomatoes thrown its way in the wake of this latest outbreak," says leading US consumer watchdog The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

CSPI said it had spent the last two years lobbying the FDA to ensure all farms have written safety plans - but to no avail. "Instead, the agency and the Bush Administration rely on voluntary, and obviously ineffective, industry programmes. The result is yet another produce outbreak, sickening consumers and dealing another setback to another important industry, which includes many growers who have implemented food safety measures," the CSPI adds.

Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, agrees, pointing to previous outbreaks of contaminated tomatoes. He insists, though, that there have been calls from industry for the FDA to draw up safety regulations for produce. "Industry has asked the FDA and it still hasn't done anything about it," Waldrop tells just-food.

Waldrop says the FDA has been "more communicative" during the current salmonella scare and has provided updates on information, including the types of tomato to avoid and the states not linked to the outbreak.

He argues, however, that the crux of the whole debate surrounding the FDA is that the agency is "reactive not preventative". Moreover, while Waldrop broadly agrees with the Dingell proposals, he believes there is one key missing element in the plans for fresh produce. "[The proposals] do not provide that the FDA does inspections on farms, which would be a key element in addressing this outbreak. That is a hole in the system," he says.

Indeed, the FDA is yet to identify the source of the tainted tomatoes. "We are still doing our trace-backs and investigation into the salmonella outbreak," an FDA spokesperson told just-food this afternoon.

The spokesperson refused to be drawn on whether the contamination could have come into the US from overseas. "We are looking at all growing areas possible," she added.

And, while the FDA works to identify the source, consumer concern and confusion over which tomatoes are safe to eat intensifies. Growers in Florida, the largest tomato-producing state in the US, have estimated that the outbreak will cost them US$500m in sales after parts of the state were initially left of the list of those not linked to the scare.

"Until [the] FDA put Florida on the 'clear' list, the market was in complete collapse," Lisa Lochridge of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, says. "Crops remained in fields, packinghouses and in the distribution system. The losses ultimately will be staggering."

Despite parts of Florida being cleared, Lochridge admits growers will have to "rebuild" trust among consumers, who have watched as retailers and restaurants issue recalls or stop stocking the types of tomato linked to the outbreak.

"The Florida tomato industry remains committed to the production of a safe product," she says. "In fact, Florida is the first state in the country to adopt a comprehensive food safety programme with mandatory government inspection and audit of its tomatoes."

For Waldrop, however, it will be a challenge to win over consumers. "This does shake consumer confidence, especially if you go into grocery stores and you don't see tomatoes on the shelf."

And with - according to research from Deloitte - over half of US consumers boycotting products that are subject to recalls, tomato growers across the US and potentially beyond will face an uphill task in the months ahead.