Thursday, June 19, 2008

Why Tomatoes Hate America, by Dana Milbank

The tomatoes attacked us brutally and without warning. Yesterday, our leaders struck back against the pernicious produce.

"As we hold this hearing, grocers and restaurants nationwide have been pulling tomatoes from the shelves and menus," announced Rep. John Shimkus, the ranking Republican member of the House Commerce subcommittee assigned to skewer the tomatoes.

One hundred sixty-seven people have been sickened by salmonella-tainted tomatoes -- and that's not the worst of it. "I tried to get a BLT sandwich in the cloakroom yesterday, and no tomato!" Shimkus recounted. "I had a BL sandwich."

Now THIS is war! And the more they talked about it, the more members of the panel realized that the Global War on Tomatoes would have to be broadened. Other freedom-hating foods are trying to kill us, too.

"We can see tomatoes, spinach, grapes, mushrooms, seafood and dozens of other items which have gone on to poison and sicken the American consumer," complained Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).

"Jars of Peter Pan peanut butter containing salmonella, cans of green beans containing botulism, spinach tainted with E. coli, poisoned pot pies," rejoined Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). "The largest meat recall in the history of our country. . . . Salmonella was found in Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat cereals. . . . Tainted cantaloupes."

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) was losing her appetite. "The longer you sit on this committee, the more depressed you get, because the issues never get resolved and crop up again and again," she said, betraying no sign that her "crop" pun was intentional.

It was one of the scarier moments in horticulture since the 1978 B movie "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes," in which mutant fruits turned against humanity. And there was no escaping the horror yesterday, even on lunch break in the Rayburn cafeteria downstairs from the hearing room. "Because your health and safety is our first priority, we have followed the FDA warning by removing the tomato varieties of concern," a sign above the salad bar announced.

Without doubt, the man feeling most strained by tomatoes yesterday was David Acheson, the food safety chief at the Food and Drug Administration. And Acheson, whose British accent makes him sound aloof to begin with, made the mistake of quarreling with his questioners.

"Fresh produce, like spinach -- how many outbreaks have we had with that?" demanded the subcommittee's chairman, Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).

"Two," Acheson replied.

"Man," the chairman continued, "the last 10 years, I think there's been like eight."

"No," Acheson informed him. "Two with spinach. There's been eight or nine with other leafy greens."

"There has been at least 20 in 10 years," Stupak insisted.

"Excuse me," Acheson lectured. "I think you're confusing spinach with other leafy greens, like lettuce."

Acheson was in no position to argue with the lawmakers. His department has been plagued by poor oversight, coordination and planning, the Government Accountability Office found. FDA's own Science Board concluded that the agency "does not have the capacity to ensure the safety of food." The Bush administration, stewing over the tomatoes, this week dramatically increased its budget request for food safety.

The timing of the hearing, scheduled before word of the tomato attack went public, was also problematic for Acheson. "This outbreak is particularly frustrating, given the fact that today marks the one-year anniversary of the FDA's Tomato Safety Initiative," Stupak noted.

Acheson was destined to be sliced and diced.

Dingell, the longest-serving member of the House, informed Acheson that his system is "crowned by incompetence, indifference, inadequacy and a gross shortfall in funding and leadership."

"It's almost like a conspiracy against parents," protested Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.). "You know how hard it is to get your kids to eat spinach and tomatoes to begin with."

And Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), while assuring all that "our good, Tennessee-grown tomatoes are safe," lamented the stories "about the FDA and your inability to take action -- my goodness gracious!"

Acheson was caught in this year's equivalent of the shark attacks. The tomato had been a suspicious plant to begin with -- Is it a fruit? Or a vegetable? -- and now he had to justify leaving the nation undefended despite signs that the tomato could turn against us.

"Food can become contaminated at many different steps along the path from farm to fork," he tried to explain. "In recent years, the FDA has done a great deal to prevent both deliberate and unintentional contamination."

But not enough, as the questioning revealed. How much would it cost to implement the FDA's Food Protection Plan? "It gets a little difficult to actually determine." Any idea what it might cost over five years? "I couldn't tell you." Why not? "You're asking me to go outside of my authority within the administration." Absolutely nothing about long-term budgeting? "It is what it is." Would FDA help Congress draft legislation governing food safety? "There's no intent to provide specific legislative language." If the tainted tomatoes are coming from Mexico, shouldn't we know more about the growing process there? "I beg to differ."

"You can see our frustration, Dr. Acheson," DeGette said from the dais, looking as if she'd like to throw a tomato at him.

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