Farmers See Potential for Food-Scare Repeat
Federal health agency's report led to recent false alarm on food poisoning, growers say. CANTALOUPE CONTROVERSY
A NEEDLESS scare two months ago over food poisoning could happen again, farmers say.Cantaloupe sales ground to a halt on Aug. 16, a day after the media reported that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had linked an outbreak of salmonella food poisoning to consumption of the melons. The public got the false impression that there was a current danger and that the melons themselves were to blame. "We had enormous economic damage without any medical justification," says John McClung, vice president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association. The incident was "extremely unfortunate and has clear, ominous overtones for the produce industry." The CDC has promised to consult the Western Growers Association before releasing potentially disruptive information in the future. WGA members grow, pack, and ship most of the fresh fruit and vegetables in Arizona and California. But the CDC refused to adopt other practices that growers requested and rejects responsibility for the false alarm. The federal health agency denies that the scare hurt melon sales much. Instead, CDC news director William Grigg says, farmers overproduced. "Here was an industry that was already in trouble, and [the scare] was just a little cherry on the top." Cantaloupe growers acknowledge that high yields depressed prices, but the farmers still attribute tens of millions of dollars in losses to the scare alone. All in all, growers are "not very confident" that last summer's incident won't be repeated, says Barbara Buck, a WGA spokeswoman. The CDC is an Atlanta-based branch of the United States Department of Health and Human Services with 6,700 employees and a budget of $1.4 billion. One of its tasks is epidemiology - the tracking of a disease outbreak back to its source. That job is difficult with salmonella food poisoning (41,000 US cases in 1989) because experts say that just 10 varieties of the bacteria account for the vast majority of infections. It's impossible to know which cases to lump together for investigation. Sometimes, though, an increase is seen in cases involving a rare variety of the bacteria. When that happens, epidemiologists can interview those who fell ill and a control group to contrast what they ate. Last summer an increase in cases of rare Salmonella poona occurred in 23 states and Canada. To epidemiologists, it was an "outbreak," although the 400 cases still would represent less than 1 percent of the 1989 total. Four separate investigations by state health officials found that the likely common food item was cantaloupe (See story, below). Virtually every case involved public food servers such as restaurants, caterers, and nursing homes. The Food and Drug Administration issued a "cantaloupe advisory" on July 3 to remind food servers of proper practices: Wash melons before cutting, use a clean knife, refrigerate the slices, and don't let them sit out for more than four hours. Six weeks later, the CDC summarized three state investigations in its "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report," a technical publication written for doctors and public health officials. The CDC considered the section on salmonella to be "absolutely routine." Advance copies were released to the media on Aug 15. The CDC prefaced the state summaries with its conclusion that they indicated "a large nationwide outbreak related to consumption of cantaloupes." Many growers were angry with the Associated Press (AP) for spreading the story. (United Press International also covered the story.) Robert Byrd, who wrote the AP story, is one of the reporters who regularly culls the CDC report for news. He has filed hundreds of stories based on it over the past six years. "I'm a little surprised at all the attention that this particular story got, especially since the report - and my coverage, I thought - made pretty clear that the outbreak was waning at the time the news came out," Mr. Byrd says. Although properly handled cantaloupes had never posed a danger, the timing of the outbreak became a point of contention between the CDC and growers. Epidemiologist Jane Koehler told the AP reporter that the outbreak "has died down considerably" and "we're still seeing scattered cases, but nothing like June and July." Asked about her comments, Dr. Koehler explains that the August cases might not have been part of the outbreak, since there is always the odd incidence of Salmonella poona, but no one knows for sure. Growers and some state health officials are certain that cases in August were not connected to the outbreak because, by then, melons associated with the outbreak were long gone from the market. Growers said that the outbreak had been dealt with by the FDA and had ended six weeks earlier, so why was the CDC alarming consumers now? And growers were livid that the CDC report raised the possibility that melons from California and Arizona had been involved. Those melons hadn't been harvested at the time of the outbreak, but were on the market in August. The CDC says it can't help it if state officials pass along wrong information. And while they won't say specifically when the outbreak ended, Koehler's colleagues say that "it was not a problem" by Aug. 15. But that day the AP story, brimming with immediacy, was transmitted under the headline: "Cantaloupe-Connected Salmonella Outbreak Strikes 400." The story began: "What federal health officials are calling a 'large nationwide outbreak' of salmonella food poisoning has been traced to an unlikely source: cantaloupes. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control said Thursday that more than 400 people in 23 states and Canada have become ill from eating cantaloupes this summer, most in June and July. And researchers assume there are dozens of cases for every one that is reported and confirmed." Like the CDC report, the AP story mentioned that mishandling by public food servers played a role in some cases; Health officials now say that mishandling was behind virtually every case. Says Byrd: "I don't know that I would do anything differently if the story came out next week as opposed to last August. We reported the facts as best we could put them together. I thought our story was fair and accurate and reasonable."
Unanswered phone calls Jennifer Skiff, a reporter with the Cable News Network (CNN) saw the AP story that day at noon. "I was left with one very big question: Was this still a problem?" But getting through to the agency proved difficult. "We probably put 15 calls into the CDC that afternoon," Ms. Skiff says. "They just would not return my phone call." Although it was Koehler's turn that day to field calls from the press, it was Robert Tauxe that Skiff finally reached at 5:30. Dr. Tauxe indicated that the outbreak had ended, and Skiff emphasized that in her story. Whether using the wire services or their own reporting, many news organizations carried the story. That night in Fresno, Calif. - cantaloupe country, no less - a television station aired the news teaser: "Cantaloupes can kill you." Even stories that said the melons were safe seemed to spook consumers, growers say. "Man, it was a total disaster," says Frank Holder, a grower and shipper in Colorado. "The sales dropped to nothing" as consumers returned melons to produce stands, grocers canceled orders, and restaurants yanked them from their menus. Growers were forced to lay off thousands of seasonal workers, plow under fields full of the luscious melons, and dump or give away thousands of cases that had already been packed for shipping. CDC officials were amazed that, after ignoring two similar outbreaks last year that were associated with cantaloupes and tomatoes, the media had leaped on this latest one. (Neither this newspaper nor its broadcast affiliates covered the CDC report or its aftermath.) "It's happened the other way around, too, you know," says Tauxe. "You can put something that you think is very important ... out to the press, and the press can just yawn and walk away."
CDC defends its methods Yet the CDC doesn't conclude that it needs to learn to handle the press better. "We don't see a need for any change of procedure, when the procedure itself is working fine," CDC press spokesman Kent Taylor says. Still, once the scare began, why didn't health officials feel obliged to speak up forcefully? To growers, the need to stamp out the scare quickly was critical because the harvest of the highly perishable fruit was then under way in major growing areas. "Cantaloupes don't wait for anybody when it's 105 degrees in the San Joaquin valley," says Michael Stuart, senior vice president of the WGA. "No one at the FDA or any other agency was willing to come out" and state that the scare was all a misunderstanding, he says.
Whose responsibility? Adds Ms. Buck: "We would talk to the FDA; they'd point to the CDC. We talked to the CDC, they'd point to the FDA." At the CDC, "our primary mission is not to protect American agriculture," responds Tauxe. "What we do, we do to prevent disease." Emil Corwin, an FDA spokesman, adds, "I don't think we did much" to reassure the public. Both agencies duck the question of who should announce that a perceived danger is false. A WGA representative tried to iron out the issue at a September meeting with CDC officials. Mr. Grigg says his agency rejected the WGA's request that an interagency committee be formed to speak with one voice during perishable-food crises. Such a committee exists, he says, but deals only with more important situations. But the CDC did promise to try to consult with the WGA in the future. The scare-driven slump lasted two weeks. Sales never recovered to previous levels, Stuart says. In California, which produces half of the nation's cantaloupes, losses reached $25 million, the WGA estimates. Farmers in other states lost millions more. "That's how things sometimes happen," Grigg shrugs. Mr. Holder sees the agency's attitude as: "Ha ha, we're sorry." The Colorado grower would like a class-action lawsuit against the CDC. "At least those people would have to answer to somebody," he fumes.