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Outbreak Traced To Pomegranates Reveals Flaws In Global Food Chain

A fruit thought by some to be what Eve used to tempt Adam has been grown in the Middle East for centuries.
A fruit thought by some to be what Eve used to tempt Adam has been grown in the Middle East for centuries.

Disease detectives have traced the continuing outbreak of hepatitis A that has so far sickened 136 people in the U.S. to a shipment of pomegranate seeds from the Anatolian region of Turkey.

As a result, the Food and Drug Administration has orderedany new shipments from the company that shipped the suspect fruit, Goknur Foodstuffs Import Export Trading, to be seized at American ports.

That should be enough to end this outbreak. Hepatitis A is commonly spread when food workers don't wash their hands after using the bathroom. But in the current outbreak, there are slight variations in the virus among the people who have fallen ill. That suggests that the pomegranate may have become contaminated with sewage carrying the virus from more than one person.

It's unsettling to think that a few people in Turkey could cause a serious disease outbreak halfway around the world. It makes global food safety seem like a high-stakes version of the 1980s children's game Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

All of the people who have fallen ill bought the organic frozen berry mix at Costco, a company renowned for its food safety efforts. Given that the U.S. gets 50 percent of its fresh fruit, 20 percent of its fresh vegetables and 80 percent of its seafood from other countries, are we doomed to more outbreaks like this?

We called up Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the FDA, to find out.

"I do think that the hepatitis A outbreak is a wonderful snapshot of the makeup of the global food system and the challenges it presents for food safety," Taylor told The Salt.

"It reflects the diversity of conditions in the scores and scores of countries involved," he says.

The frozen berry mix in this outbreak had been packaged by Townsend Farms Inc., of Fairview, Ore., using berries and pomegranate arils, or seed kernels, from the U.S., Argentina, Chile and Turkey — a mini-United Nations of fruit.

The FDA currently inspects less than 2 percent of food imports, so oversight of imports is left largely to the U.S. processors and distributors. They often hire companies called third-party auditors to inspect foreign producers and processors.

Some of those third-party audits have been conducted well, Taylor says, and "some are not done well."

"In the case of produce," he adds, "it includes paying attention to the microbial quality of the water used in processing."

In one infamous case from 2011, a private auditor gave a cantaloupe-packing facility glowing reviews while it was shipping out melons contaminated with listeria; 30 people died.

Back in 2011, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, intended to remedy those problems. But the law is only just now on the way to being put in action.

In January, the FDA released proposed regulations for two key aspects of the new food-safety law: science-based standards for fruit and vegetable farms; and requirements for food processors to develop controls to prevent contamination. Other proposed regulations, on accreditation of third-party auditors and a requirement that U.S. importers have a foreign-supplier verification program, are in the works.

"A central feature of FSMA is that we have better ways to make sure those standards are being met," says Taylor. "It doesn't do any good to have regulations on the books if we can't inspect and enforce."

The law gives the FDA more power to oversee third-party auditors, and to do its own inspections overseas. But both of those tasks cost money, and it's not clear if Congress will hand over the kind of cash needed to do it right.

"We have to be realistic," Taylor says. "There's no switch we're going to turn off and have no foodborne illness. But we ought to be conscious of where the hazards are."

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