Yesterday evening, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced that Daniele Inc is expanding its January 23 2010 recall of salami products to include another 115,000 pounds of potentially contaminated salami. See list of recalled products. The expansion is yet another twist in an outbreak that has continued to evolve, and with sometimes only limited information passed to the public by investigating health officials and the companies involved.
But the recent expansion is more significant for the many questions that it creates. It is based upon the presence of salmonella in salami packages that did not contain any black pepper, which has long been thought to have been the source of contamination in the outbreak. Now, health authorities believe that crushed red pepper included in some of the Daniele Inc product may have been contaminated as well.
Here is a quick list of questions that need to be answered:
1. Who is the supplier of red pepper?
Why it matters: if tests have indicated the presence of salmonella on the crushed red pepper that Daniele Inc used, the same contaminated pepper may have been distributed to other food producers or retailers, so more foods may be, or might become, contaminated. Pepper has a long shelf life, so if this product is, indeed, elsewhere in the consumer chain of distribution, it represents an ongoing threat to human health.
2. How many strains of Salmonella are implicated in this outbreak, and what are they?
The FSIS press release about the recall expansion tells us that crushed red pepper may now be contaminated, but says nothing about the strain of salmonella that was isolated. We know Montevideo, and we know Senftenberg, It would seem unlikely, unless the supplier of the black and red pepper was the same, that both would be contaminated with the same strains of Salmonella. Maybe the red pepper was contaminated with one, and the black with the other; or maybe the black with both known strains, and the red with a totally new strain. Whatever the case, the public should have the benefit of this knowledge.
3. Have all potentially contaminated products been recalled?
Surely, the companies involved would say yes, but yesterday’s announcement is, after all, effectively the third announced recall by Daniele, each one including more and different products. So, has Daniele Inc taken a conservative approach to recall? Or has it acted as broadly in scope as the ongoing risk to public health would seem to dictate.
But at least Daniele has acted. One thing causing great concern, here at least, is that there has been no recall of pepper, either the black or the red, despite tests that have confirmed the presence of salmonella in pepper from two, and maybe even three different companies. Maybe Daniele was Overseas Spice and Wholesome Spice’s only customer, and those companies have accurately determined that there is no ongoing risk because Daniele’s recalls encompass all the potentially contaminated product. We can only speculate at this point, but that doesn’t sound like a sustainable business model.
4. Is the model currently in place for telling the public crucial information about outbreaks and recalls really the most efficient method we can think of?
The flow of information to the public about this major outbreak has been slow. Recall that the CDC announced this outbreak in January by stating that the implicated product was "a widely distributed contaminated food product." At the time of the CDC’s announcement, it was certainly known by US Government that Daniele Inc’s salami was the "widely distributed contaminated food product." But instead of the CDC just saying that, it fell to Bill Marler, a private citizen way out in the northwest corner of the country, to announce what the product really was.
On her blog, Obamafoodorama.com, Eddie Gehman Kohan asked "How is it possible that a blogger notifies the public of a new Class I (you could die) recall of 1,240,000 pounds of meat before USDA does?": She continued, "It’s a grim situation when a private citizen is more on the ball than the federal agency that’s supposed to be managing national food safety concerns (CDC’s own e mail heads-up about the outbreak included no information, except that a product sold nationally was contaminated with Salmonella Montevideo)."
So back to the original question, is a system that is so reliant on the private sector–instead of first responders like the government, CDC, FDA, FSIS–to pass information about food outbreaks really an efficient model? There are 230 recognized illnesses in this outbreak, many of which fell ill long before the pieces to the puzzle had fallen into place, but certainly some of whom fell ill after government and certain industry members knew the most essential details. Clearly, this is not efficient from a public health standpoint, and some would certainly argue that it’s not very efficient from a business standpoint either. After all, the losses generated by the publicity surrounding these outbreaks in the form of reduced sales and lawsuits certainly compound the longer the outbreak remains in the public spotlight. And one sure way of accomplishing that is to deliver information piecemeal and untimely.
Many questions yet to be answered as this outbreak continues to unfold.